Entertainment » Theatre

Bad Jews

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Oct 29, 2014
Gillian Mariner Gordon, Victor Shopov, Alex Marz and Alison McCartan in "Bad Jews"
Gillian Mariner Gordon, Victor Shopov, Alex Marz and Alison McCartan in "Bad Jews"  (Source:Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

"Bad Jews" plays like a pilot episode to a must-see HBO series. That is meant with the highest praise - television is the new black for writers and playwright Joshua Harmon has a voice and a story worth exploring in a longer form. For now, though, we need to settle for his 100-minute, intermissionless play, having its Boston premiere at the SpeakEasy Stage Company, that is more than satisfying.

Set in a cramped, Upper West Side apartment, it follows in real time a reunion of three cousins with a family dynamic worthy of Jean Cocteau: Daphna (aka Diana) Feygenbaum, a highly opinionated and most vocal Vassar senior who most likely gives her professors headaches; Liam Haber, her cousin, a graduate student more interested in studying Japanese culture than immersing himself in his Jewish heritage; and Jonah Haber, Liam's brother, who shows the scars of the psychic beating he's had over the years from his sibling and cousin by playing a neutral role in this disruptive, family dynamic.

What divides Daphna and Liam, at least on this night, is their religion. Daphna has (in the past few years) embraced her Judaism: upon graduation she is emigrating to Israel to become a rabbi and marry a man she met the summer before. Liam has all but disavowed his religion. Daphna tells a story of how he ate ginger cookies during a Passover fast with dismissive sarcasm. Making matters worse, he arrives with his new girlfriend, Melody, a poster child for a shiksa with straight blonde hair and a look, as Daphna puts it, that appears she was birthed live at Talbots.

Alison McCartan and Alex Marz in "Bad Jews"  (Source:Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

What has brought the cousins together is the death of their beloved grandfather Poppy, whose funeral was earlier that day. That Liam missed the occasion because he didn't know his grandfather had died only infuriates Daphna. She doesn't believe he dropped his phone on a ski lift and didn't get any messages about his grandfather's imminent death and already has bared her fangs before he arrives.

Once Liam does, "Bad Jews" takes off like a combustive convergence of Edward Albee and Neil Simon. Up to that point, it was difficult to read - was this that kind-of stage equivalence of network sit-com or something authentically original? But once Daphna begins to spar with Liam, the play becomes the real thing: a viciously funny, strangely touching and, best of all, pertinent comedy of ill-manners.

Daphna may be the worst offender. As played with considerable brio by Alison McCartan, she lacerates those around her with rapid-fire delivery of Kathy Griffin. There's obviously history between the cousins and plenty of baggage for her to use in a volley of insults that seems like sport to her. As her target, Liam responds with a mix of exasperation and righteous indignation. Harmon has fun with these scenes when the cousins go after each other - it's like some mean-spirited, screwball comedy.

Victor Shopov in "Bad Jews"  (Source:Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

But Harmon also has points to make about Millennials finding their way to a belief system, as well deftly define the deep ambivalence that has brought the cousins to this moment. This is why I would love to meet Liam, Daphna, Jonah and Melody again, know more about their parents and what happened before and after this moment in time. Harmon appears not to have figured out how to end the story, which revolves around which cousin will own Poppy's 'chai,' a gold icon he hid while in a concentration camp for two years that has a touching story behind it. By bringing the drama back to Jonah and Daphna, Harmon gives the largely mute Joshua the opportunity to reveal a poignant gesture; but it felt out-of-synch by what came before, which is lacerating, bracingly real and decidedly unsentimental. That may be Harmon's point: that the meek should inherit the Earth, or in this case the contested piece of jewelry that becomes a focus of this domestic fracas. If only Jonah were as well-defined as his cousins.

Director Rebecca Bradshaw 's production moves from the tentative first scene to a bristling comedy of family dysfunction with seamless skill. Much has to do with her careful spatial arrangements - Jonah (Alex Marz) has the least lines, but just watching him hide in the corners was much funnier than it should be - in silence he's an equal part of this vicious triangle and Marz gives him a shaggy charm. He's emotionally shell-shocked, but eminently sympathetic in his timidity. The gifted Victor Shopov captures Liam's not-so-pent-up rage with great comic verve; his timing is perfect as he becomes more and more unhinged.

To call McCartan a scene stealer doesn't do her justice: she humanizes what could easily be an irritating stereotype in other hands. She is, as Melody puts it, horrible; but this volatile actress offers glimpses of what makes her tick. As Melody Gillian Mariner Gordon may have the hardest role - the outsider that appears to have walked out of a Woody Allen nightmare (think Thanksgiving and "Annie Hall"). She has the play's most vulnerable moment: singing "Summertime" without irony to Daphna's savage amusement; but beneath her Wonder Bread exterior is Harmon's moral voice. The lack of civility shocks her, as it does the audience, who laugh at the scathing invectives hurled back and forth. But it also leaves them thinking, which is likely Harmon's goal with this spirited, hilarious and incisive comedy.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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