Following a matinee performance of Bad Jews at the Cygnet Theatre, an audience member said something along the lines of “I could have seen that show for free in my own house.” That should be an indication of how close to home Joshua Harmon’s script is hitting for some theatregoers.
In a New York apartment, two cousins Jonah Haber (Tom Zohar) and Daphna Feygenbaum (Danielle Frimer) reconnect with each other when their Grandpa Poppy passes away. As they converse, Daphna reveals that she wants to have Poppy’s chai necklace that he had kept since surviving in a concentration camp during World War II.
Conflict hater Jonah doesn’t care if Daphna is given the chai. What Daphna doesn’t realize is that Jonah’s atheist brother, Liam (Josh Odsess-Rubin), plans on keeping the chai for personal reasons. Since Daphna and Liam dislike each other, the verbal sparring between them gets out of hand throughout a long night.
What Harmon is able to do, in his dark comedy, is write a story that feels very personal, while also being accessible to different cultures. The three Jewish characters have completely different views on their religion. A couple of the most dramatic moments in the 90-minute one-act play deal with how each of them feels about their religious identity.
Non-Jewish observers can also connect with the dysfunctional conflict that drives the plot. Every family has a Daphna or a Liam. Both of them are self-righteous and have gigantic egos.
Frimer sometimes is too grating as the, “Super Jew,” but she is very funny with her self-indulgent attitude. Although the focus is on her clashes with Liam, Frimer’s most humanistic moments are Daphna’s less confrontational conversations with Jonah.
Just as verbally toxic, Odsess-Rubin is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. He has a couple of cynical speeches that are as brutal as they are hilarious.
Zohar’s acting is much quieter and deliberately low-key, when compared to the other overly dramatic performances, and he depicts Jonah as an empathetic witness to the mini-war taking place in his family.
Associate Artistic Director at Cygnet, Rob Lutfy, finds the balance between humor and uncomfortable drama. While there are uproarious sequences, he doesn’t rush through what is sometimes an awkwardly vicious dialogue.
Sean Fanning’s set creates an apartment that seems to be a very nice place to live. Fanning, along with Kevin Anthenill’s city sound effects, create a fairly peaceful tone for the first part of Bad Jews. Once Liam enters the apartment, Fanning’s set becomes a battlefield and there is no way to escape the verbal bullets.
Don’t expect too much relief from the mayhem. In the first half of Bad Jews the protagonists bond after sharing an embarrassing story about a trip to Benihana. It’s a humorous anecdote that suggests how close the relatives could be if Daphna and Liam weren’t so resentful towards each other.
Providing a momentary escape is an apartment corridor. R. Craig Wolf’s lighting contributes to a much calmer atmosphere and keeps Bad Jews from feeling too claustrophobic.
While the fighting is focused on Daphna and Liam, Harmon’s script asks a lot of existential questions about faith, honoring someone’s legacy and keeping a way of life alive. Since the plot is written with thought and care, the narrative is riveting to watch.
The one area where Harmon perhaps goes too far is his handling of Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Katie Sapper). Naïve and compassionate, she doesn’t deserve the frequently harsh treatment that Daphna inflicts on her. Despite that, Sapper remains a charming presence who doesn’t turn her role into a helpless victim.
Uncompromising and blackly comical, Harmon’s tale takes a small concept and turns it into surprisingly ambitious storytelling. His non-judgmental handling of the material should inspire lengthy conversations following the curtain call.