In the much celebrated off-broadway production Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon and director, Daniel Aukin, attempt a balancing act on a heavy subject matter and do the trick swimmingly.
No, Bad Jews is not about anti-Semitism; it’s about Jews themselves, specifically three grandchildren of a recently deceased Holocaust survivor called Papi. The main character Daphna (Tracee Chimo) is a big-nosed, loudmouthed, fiercely Jewish girl who conscientiously attends family functions, has an Israeli boyfriend named Gilad (no, not that one), and loves to complain about intermarriage. Jonah (Philip Ettinger) doesn’t talk much; he’s a loutish, lampshade of a character. He does reveal a certain innocence as the play goes on, but mostly he likes to stay out of the action.
In town for Papi’s funeral, Daphna is staying in her cousin Jonah’s apartment. The play opens with a classically Jewish tirade about living costs in NYC.
Into the picture comes Jonah’s brother Liam (Michael Zegen), an angsty, urban, millenial type, self-titled a Bad Jew because he spitefully eats bread on Passover. Liam cares nothing for Judaism at all, so it’s no surprise that he’s dating Melody, a petite, WASPish shiksa with not a Jewish hair on her Barbie-blonde head. Melody (Molly Ronson) represents the encroaching forces of modernity to the philosophically paranoid Daphna. She is hyper-tolerant, sings opera (awfully, I might add), and smiles like a model for Suave brand shampoo.
The play proceeds, expertly paced, as an extended conversation in real time between the four characters. Daphna has a laundry list of complaints against Liam, including his absence at Papi’s funeral (he was skiing in Aspen) and his impending intermarriage to Melody. To Daphna, the two are one and the same: Liam cares nothing about family or tradition, and by marrying a non-Jew he shows the same disrespect to Papi as he does by missing the funeral. The overarching question here is of Jewish identity and tradition. Liam and Daphna, both cock-sure of their opinions, scream absurdly elegant monologues at each other ad infinitum. Liam considers Judaism outdated, ritualistic, and most of all, annoying. For Daphna, Judaism is vital, spiritual, beautiful.
Dialogue is often hard to watch for two hours straight, so the play moves about to keep our interest. Director Daniel Aukin has his characters wander and stalk the apartment, which may not mirror how we ourselves converse (sprawled on the couch, munching chips) but emphasizes the peripatetic meanderings of the discussion. Toward the play’s end, the tension moves into physical territory, as the slugfest becomes a practical fight over who inherits Papi’s Chai necklace, a family charm of great sentimental and religious value. Papi smuggled the Chai through the Holocaust by hiding it under his tongue, and even proposed to his wife with it. To Daphna, the Chai represents Jewish tradition and religion, making her, the only religious grandchild, the Chai’s natural heir. But to Liam the Chai is a family charm, not a religious one, and should thus pass to him, Papi’s oldest and perhaps even closest grandchild.
At extremes, Daphna and Liam excellently embody their respective Jewish stereotypes. “You reek of f***ing cliche,” says Daphna to Liam, and the same is true of her. Traces Chimo as Daphna is incandescent, a classic Birthright enthusiast with a shrill, overbearing immediacy. As her typical counterpart, Liam is a snarky intellectual, playing up his condescension, selfishness, and even slight cruelty. The cousins’ initially cordial argument quickly devolves into a bare-bones clash of wills. Liam and Daphna are such energetic jerks that it’s often hard to sympathize with them, but the drama onstage suffices to rivet the audience. We’re reminded of Friday nights spent in conversational brawls with people at odds with our ideologies. All the while, Melody and Jonah stand on the sidelines, like those times we’ve been caught in the crossfire of arguments that never seem to end.
If sentimental at times, Bad Jews straddles the line between emotional depth and schmaltz, and usually emerges the better for it. The conversation is palatable because its tension is not overdone and because it has a college-age believability. The characters speak like you and me, in stilted sentences (“I’m not saying you have to be best friends… or even.. but civil..” says Jonah) and inject “like” between every few words. Playwright Joshua Harmon aptly lightens the tone with his gifts for situational comedy. The play is genuinely funny, but in a way that complements the source material and doesn’t detract. “Don’t Holocaust me,” says Liam, when Daphna tries to guilt him into submission. The line is comedic, endearing, and germane to the issue. We laugh because we strongly relate to being badgered, but we naturally recognize the pathos of the moment as well.
If nothing else, Bad Jews is a pretty objective survey of questions that likely plague most thinking, Jewish adults. The playwright doesn’t foist his own thoughts on us; he sets up answers to thorny questions and then lets choose which we want. For the most part, there are no dogmatic conclusions; each of the players embodies different extremes, but none of them seems to win in the end. Perhaps that’s the most realistic part of this thoroughly enjoyable play. Ongoing discussions are valuable, but rarely have simple endings. Regarding the big questions, converting someone to your views is often as complicated as convincing a Daphna or a Liam.