Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
Also see Cameron's review of Murder on the Orient Express
The woman in question is Daphna Feygenbaum (Laura Lapidus), and the object of her single-minded obsession is a Chai necklace that belonged to her recently deceased grandfather. Daphnanée Dianais her family's self-appointed arbiter of Jewish identity; her boyfriend is in the Israeli army, after all, and she plans to attend rabbinical school after graduating Vassar. In her mind, this totem that her "Poppy" carried throughout the Holocaust should go to no one else.
Her unwilling opponent is her cousin Liam (Alec Silberblatt), a self-described atheist who doesn't keep kosher, shows more interest in his PhD in Japanese studies than his own family's Hebraic heritage, and is in a serious relationship with Melody (Maddie Jo Sanders), who's about as Jewish as a bacon cheeseburger on Yom Kippur. When Daphna discovers Liam's plan to give Melody the necklace as an engagement gift, war is declared.
Harmon uses one family's strife to magnify questions of identity, privilege and culture. Daphna resents Liam and his brother Jonah (Amos VanderPoel), who grew up in relative comfort on Manhattan's Riverside Drive. Their parents even bought them a studio apartment in their building just because it was for sale, which serves as the play's increasingly claustrophobic setting (Charlie Corcoran designed the pitch-perfect set). Liam, in turn, is openly skeptical of Daphna's overt embrace of her Jewish faith, which he considers performative. These global tensions permeate the escalating tension between the cousins, leaving the audience in an amused state of bewilderment as any trace of familial pleasantry rapidly fades.
It is no accident that Daphna's given name is Diana; as played by Lapidus, she is absolutely feral when attacking her prey. Melody serves as an easy mark for her, and Lapidus relishes the opportunity to mock her profession (she trained as an opera singer, which serves as a hilarious plot point later in the play), her large and visible tattoo (she's quick to inform Melody that tattoos are forbidden in the Jewish religion), and especially her ancestry (no, Daphna tells her, being from Delaware is not an ethnic identity). Harmon has bravely written Daphna as a brazenly unsympathetic character; throughout the play, your impulse is to search for a justification for her behavior, a struggle that is ultimately for naught. One of the most satisfying aspects of Lapidus's performance is how furiously she commits to the strident, unsupportable aspects of Daphna's personality.
Arguing with Daphna is like playing chess with a chimpanzee: it doesn't matter how skillfully you move when your opponent is just going to knock the board to the ground. Silberblatt's marvelous performance gains in energy as he rises to meet Daphna at her histrionic level. Harmon has gifted Liam with a virtuosic monologue that deconstructs every one of the Daphna's many faults with laser-like precision; Silberblatt delivers it with the commitment and clarity of a soloist performing a difficult sonata. But in the end, he is bound to failunlike his cousin, he is actually cognizant and respectful of the feelings of others. Still, their battle is thrilling, even if the outcome is evident.
Melody functions for most of the play as an avatar of shiksahood; Sanders does well playing the ditz, allowing the audience to see the sharper edges that might lurk beneath. Similar, Vanderpoel makes it aware that his slightly vacant Jonah contains multitudes. You cannot help but feel sorry for them as they watch Daphna and Liam repeatedly go for the jugular. But at the same time, you are glad that they don't step in and separate them. What's the fun in a happy family story, after all?
Harmon's writing begins to falter as the play hurtles towards its predictive denouement, ending in a redemptive flourish that doesn't feel entirely earned. Despite the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, though, it is easy to see why Bad Jews has become one of the most frequently produced plays in the United States, particularly under Jessica Stone's briskly paced direction. The audiences at George Street Playhouse are bound to leave the theater with a few more laugh lines than they had before, and with a profound gratitude that they won't have to run into Daphna or Liam at the next high holy day.
Bad Jews continues through Sunday, April 9, 2017, at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ. Tickets ($17-66) can be purchased online at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org, or by calling 732-846-2895.