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Bad Jews

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bad Jews
Tracee Chimo and Michael Zegen.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Go ahead, try to hate her. She certainly makes it easy enough for you. The writhing wall of hair. The voice, so glass-breakingly shrill. Her attitude, of both entitlement and condescension, that impresses upon you that no matter how you behave, you’re incapable of being good enough. Even her name, Daphna Feygenbaum, sniffs of unearned superiority — and there’s the small matter of everyone in her family calling her “Diana.” But as played by Tracee Chimo and positioned at the throbbing center of Joshua Harmon’s outstanding new play, Bad Jews, playing in a Roundabout Underground production at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, she’s impossible to dislike entirely. In fact, she’s so winning (after a fashion) that you’ll not only happily endure every inch of her screeching artifice — you’ll beg for more.

Such an achievement would be unthinkable for most actresses, but, as she’s been proving time and time again over the last several years, Chimo is in a class by herself. Although one of New York’s finest stage comedians (as she’s demonstrated in Circle Transformation and Bachelorette), and able to “clean up” sufficiently to for the more rarefied likes of Harvey and Irena’s Vow, she’s never created quite as complete and shattering a personality as she does with Daphna. Harnessing her own innate force-of-nature tendencies, Chimo lets this twentysomething woman run roughshod over anyone who doesn’t share her unique view of what Jewishness is and what it means in the 21st century — a situation that, in the circumstances in which Daphna is currently embroiled, is nowhere near as clear-cut as it looks. Tell her that, however, and you’ll lose your head (and maybe other body parts as well).

But Chimo’s greatest success is in preventing Daphna’s Gorgonian tendencies consume the far more interesting palette of colors that lie beneath her skin. There are the hues of pulsing annoyance and resentment — these are the most prevalent, on full display from the get-go as she and her cousin, Jonah Haber (Philip Ettinger), kill time the evening of their grandfather Poppy’s funeral. Daphna accepts neither Jonah’s videogame-loving passivity, nor the absence of his brother, Liam, couldn’t make it back from his Colorado ski trip in time for the services in New York. Beneath these shades, you’ll discover Daphna’s fervent respect, even devotion, to Poppy and what he stood for, and an honest yearning to carry on his legacy. And when Liam (Michael Zegen) arrives with his hopelessly Shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson), Daphna alternates between bewildered bemusement at Liam’s choice, sincere concern for his well-being, and — as always — a single-minded focus on her present goal.

For Daphna, that’s Poppy’s “chai,” a small gold charm that survived with him through the World War II concentration camps, was how he proposed to his wife, and stands as a symbol of the background and faith that Poppy — like Daphna — held so dear. There’s only one problem: Liam has his sights set on the chai for a different reason. Daphna, used to getting what she wants, and Liam, fatigued at always giving in to her shrewish whims, occupy opposites sides of the question, leaving Jonah and Melody languishing in the unsafe middle. As the night proceeds, wounds are opened and blood, of both the literal and figurative varieties, must be spilled.

So convincingly drawn is Daphna, and so beautifully complementing her are the other characters, that if this were the true core of Bad Jews the show would still be among the season’s first must-sees. But Harmon digs much deeper, fashioning this ostensibly straightforward story into a stunningly complex analysis of the relationship between religion and culture. Each person has a very different view of the matter, and the collisions of those ideas make the play surprisingly stirring. As in-your-face as Daphna’s Jewishness is, Liam’s repudiation thereof is perhaps even more total: He’s an Asian Studies PhD student who sees traditions as being meaningless in a modern world, and he’s unashamed to admit it. Jonah is caught between extremes, afraid to take sides lest he be destroyed in the process. When asked to sing, the snow-white Melody warbles in hilariously wrong-headed fashion “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.

Bad Jews
Philip Ettinger, Tracee Chimo, and Molly Ranson.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Yet when Harmon explores these notions further, he dredges up fascinating notions of the interplay between how we see ourselves and what we expect of others. Daphna’s passionate defense of the thousands of years of her heritage is as chilling as it is warm. Liam’s callousness in the face of his cousin’s oddly reasonable objections makes you see him in a way other than he would probably intend. Jonah’s awkward behavior leaves you wondering throughout at his motives, which turn out to be secret for excellent reasons. And Melody’s willingness to learn about ways of life that aren’t hers is tempered by the ease with which she discards that knowledge once it’s convenient to do so.

Under Daniel Aukin’s taut, claustrophobic direction, the tension between the four never drops and their arguments lose none of their bite, even when the writing angles toward the repetitive. On Lauren Helpern’s spic-and-span UWS apartment set, which Mark Barton has aggressively lit, they go after each other like caged cougars settling years-old scores, but never dwelling on their shared past. The net effect is that these are people who are living in the moment, and are using this occasion together to right what they consider longstanding wrongs — and go to any length to ensure that this time things turn out as they should. It’s precisely the right attitude, and Aukin has unforgivingly rendered it: Every squabble and, more importantly, every haunted lull between conflicts, embodies the searing differences at work.

Although Jonah is the most difficult role, quiet and almost submissive in his tendency to thrust himself into the background, Ettinger negotiates it smartly, portraying a crippling confusion at what Jonah’s role is supposed to be — yet always making you want a fuller answer. Zegen’s inherent charm keeps the caustic Liam bearable even when you may want to side against him. And Ranson marshals the kind of innocence-with an-edge here that she should have used in playing the title role in the musical Carrie earlier this spring — as portrayed, Melody, like everyone else, is not what she appears to be.

With no one is that more true than with Daphna, who undergoes a particularly remarkable evolution by the final curtain. Faced for the first time with who she is and what she believes, the young woman realizes — without acknowledging it — that she’s become exactly what she despises. But Chimo, layering so many contradictory emotions — of triumph at her accomplishments, of denial of what the harm she’s inflicted, of self-hate, of feeling the weight of centuries on her shoulders — lets you feel no joy at Daphna’s deflation. She essays it with an unsparing clarity that only further anchors an already marvelous performance in an immensely satisfying play. Bad Jews soars as a critique of our responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but may be even better as a reminder that just because monsters can have hearts doesn’t mean our own hearts can’t be monstrous.


Bad Jews
Through December 16
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets and current schedule: www.roundaboutunderground.org