To review or not to review? That was my question as we divided up the schedule for City Paper. In the yes column, I had seen Bad Jews last year at the Roundabout Theater, where I fell in love with Joshua Harmon’s brilliant, lacerating play. On the other hand, that production was so sensational I worried it had set an impossibly high standard.
As you see, to review won out. How could it not? – I practically lived this story.
Well, OK – not entirely. I’m a middle-class Los Angeleno, not an Upper West Side kid. But relationship-wrecking arguments among Jewish friends and family about faith and assimilation are something I remember with stomach churning clarity.
In Bad Jews, this timeless tension is played out as a face-off between two cousins at the beginning of their adult lives. Daphna identifies unequivocally as Jewish, in terms of culture and (mostly) religious practice. Her sometimes-abrasive manner is a total turnoff to Liam, who is more privileged and more assimilated. Liam is currently dating Melody, a Shiksa goddess whom Daphna treats with scorn – and she’s even more contemptuous of Liam. To Daphna, Liam is selectively Jewish, using it only when it advances his interests. Strangely, Liam would say pretty much the same thing about Daphna.
Let the games begin – in this case, a tug-of-war over the gold Chai symbol necklace that belonged to their late grandfather (both Daphna and Liam want it).
Harmon’s script is hilarious and coruscating, often at the same time. To his great credit, he recognizes that nothing is clear-cut about the subject or his complicated characters. (Melody and another cousin, Jonah, could be seen as innocent bystanders to the mayhem, but they’re quirky, too.) I’d also say that while Bad Jews will have obvious, particular resonance for a specific audience, it makes a mournful, broader statement – that family connections and identity wear away, generation by generation.
At the Walnut Independence Studio, director David Stradley emphasizes the comedy. The play feels jokier than a remember it, and while the four actors – Greg Fallick (Jonah), Laura Giknis (Melody), Davy Raphaely (Liam) and Sofie Yavorsky (Daphna) – all score points, the characters emerge more as types than the flawed, deeply human people I remember at Roundabout. Still, the issues come across, and Bad Jews is a show to see.
One last word – while I don’t know which sides anyone will take, I am sure Bad Jews will offend some viewers with it’s deliberately crude language, and even more through its world view.
And those are only two of the great things about it!
Through November 30, Walnut St. Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., (215) 574-3550, http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/i-studio.php