REVIEW of a recent production in San Francisco
The title is the question in “Bad Jews,” the scathingly funny and thought-provoking comedy by Joshua Harmon that opened Thursday at the Magic Theatre. It may also be a statement. What does it mean to be a good Jew? Religious or secular? Zionist or assimilated? Or is it more a matter of how well you treat others? It’s certainly a lot funnier, not to mention revelatory, when self-righteous dismissiveness can’t hide a considerable degree of competitive self-interest.
That’s why you really don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “Bad Jews.” Harmon’s compact tale of young millennial cousins behaving very badly in a battle over a family heirloom should translate well to American families of just about any religion or ethnicity. That said, the young playwright’s spot-on generational and ethnic details add considerable zest and specificity to the 2012 play, which became a big hit in New York and is now being widely produced around the country.
It’s also a matter of privilege. Daphna, the cousin who’s come in from out of town for her grandfather Poppy’s funeral, is staying at an Upper West Side apartment that her aunt and uncle bought for their two college-age sons. As played by a scintillating Rebecca Benhayon, she’s a resolutely Jewish-identified nonstop talker and intent listener, with a keen ear for any chance to push her own case, take umbrage or assert the depth of her cultural and religious identity.
Daphna is on a mission. As the most “Jewish” grandchild (she’s preparing for a trip to Israel), she’s convinced she deserves to inherit Holocaust survivor Poppy’s little gold Chai (Hebrew for “life”) amulet. Fully assimilated and no less argumentative eldest grandchild Liam is equally adamant that the necklace is, by rights, his. When Liam, a graduate student in Chicago, shows up with his new gentile girlfriend sparks combust in a conflagration of assertive snark. Hapless younger brother Jonah simply does his best to stay out of the way.
With all the rest of the family in town for the funeral, the grandkids are stuck bunking together in this living room for the duration.
That’s good news for the audience. Harmon displays a devilish skill in developing the friction between the too-close-for-comfort cousins Liam and Daphna, the self-righteous certainty of their arguments and sibling-rivalry intensity of their intellectual competition. The almost identical language with which each denounces the other’s loftier-than-thou secularism or religiosity is a deft touch. The abusive rants they deliver are comically ever-more-intense verbal eruptions that reveal more about themselves than their targets.
It won’t end well. How could it? But Harmon skillfully keeps disclosing new aspects to each character all along, and the actors make the most of them. Daphna and Liam may even learn a little something about themselves.