Theater Review - "Bad Jews" is a damn-good time

Actor's Express production is rife with family drama, and shiksas

There are not many plays that can pull off dialogue that involves screaming most of the show. However, Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews not only does just that; it also received a standing ovation on its premiere night at Actor's Express.

Family tension is the key ingredient to Bad Jews' messy, deliciously funny recipe for success. As played with unnerving solidity by Galen Crawley and Wyatt Fenner, cousins Daphna and Liam are so identical in their mutual hatred for each other that the tension often seems too much for the small — albeit impeccable — set to withstand. Directed with quick wit by Actor's Express' own Artistic Director Freddie Ashley, Bad Jews does for family harmony what a hot skillet may do to a drop of water.

The show, which only lasts 100 minutes without intermission, places the audience directly inside a cramped (but très expensive) Upper East Side apartment with the three grandchildren of Poppy, a Holocaust survivor whose funeral was just that afternoon. There are old beefs between Vassar College senior Daphna and her hipster-chic cousin Liam, who missed the funeral of their beloved patriarch due to dropping his iPhone off an Aspen ski lift while vacationing with his gentile girlfriend, Melody (Rachel DeJulio). It's typical behavior, according to Daphna. She is the "good Jew" among her cousins such as Jonah (Louis Gregory) whereas Liam prefers to sneak shortbread cookies on Passover and date ditzy blondes who look like they were "live water-birthed in a Talbots.

The rhetoric quickly descends from mean-spirited to outright savage when it becomes apparent that both Liam and Daphna want Poppy's "chai," a Jewish relic he hid under his tongue throughout his time in a concentration camp. Daphna believes she deserves it for her pristine Jew-iness. After all, she intends to move to Israel after graduating Vassar and join the army. Liam, on the other hand, wants it as a token of engagement for Melody — a fate worse than death for the chai, if you would believe Daphna's vehemence. As the tension explodes, poor Melody and Jonah are caught in the middle.

However funny, the characters themselves are believable. Daphna is that holier-than-thou annoyance we have all encountered. She is perpetually ready to pounce on anything she can argue with, a personality trait nailed in delivery by Crawley's domineering and nervous energy on set. Liam seems the more reasonable character at first, but upon having each and every one of his buttons pushed by his cousin, he explodes in a stunning display of rage pulled off impressively by Fenner. That rage is palpable and so intense that it comes off as funny — that is, until the shock value of the words spat at his cousin truly sink in.

And then there's Melody and Jonah. Although their parts are smaller — major parts for Jonah are rolling his eyes and skulking away from his cousins' arguing — they breathe some much needed air back into the overwhelming energy contained within Bad Jews' tiny set. It is not until the very end that Jonah's own quiet grieving is revealed, and in doing so begs the question the entire play demands: "What does it mean to be a "good Jew?" Or for that matter, a good person?

Bad Jews will have you questioning your own faith and intentions long after the final scene, and you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy the production — although a healthy dose of sarcasm and empathy are required to truly understand the play's message. Sometimes brash and decidedly manipulative in its surprisingly fast ending, Bad Jews is a fantastic piece from Harmon that is not without its flaws, but then again, what family isn't?

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