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Bad Jews

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tracee Chimo and Philip Ettinger
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Even monsters can be irresistible. Though it's been nearly a year since her first appearance on the New York stage, Daphna Feygenbaum has lost none of her bite, none of her verve, and none of her—can this really be right?—lovability. The central focus of Joshua Harmon's outstanding play Bad Jews, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre in a Roundabout Theatre Company production, and the inimitable creation of the superb actress Tracee Chimo, Daphna towers over everything around her as though she were a spic-and-span Manhattan high-rise.

A tangled wall of hair supported by a perpetual frown and eyes that forever burn with indignant intent, Daphna is an overheating perpetual-motion outrage machine. Stalking through rooms with leaden feet that terrify with their every pound, and shaking tight shoulders that do indeed seem to carry the weight of the world on them, Daphna is a dynamo of impressively singular purpose, and bent on getting (and saying) whatever she wants, by any means necessary. And you feel throughout that she'd be the first to tell you that her fuel is derived exclusively from being Jewish.

Outspokenly Orthodox (well, sort of), she goes by her Hebrew name (which no one in the family uses—to everyone else, she's Diana), speaks at great length about dating an Israeli freedom fighter in Jerusalem, and keeps kosher and Passover with an unquenchable fervor. Though lots of people do these things, Daphna distinguishes herself from them by bolting herself within her iron-clad self-assurance that her form of Judaism is the only way that truly matters.

The real key to this lies in Chimo's intoxicating and complex portrayal, which anchors Daphna's crusade completely in common sense and even affection. Chimo, best known for her sensitive work in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation and her glittery bitch-goddess turn is Leslye Headland's Bachelorette, combines those qualities here to form a women who's passionate not about destroying other lives but preserving the history she views as fundamental to her own.

So, yes, she'll unleash torrents of disapproval on her family. In particular, she feels no compunction against terrorizing her cousins, Jonah (Philip Ettinger) for his indifference to their people's ongoing struggle and Liam (Michael Zegen) for both his apparently hostility to it and his bringing home his ruthlessly shiksa girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson), even though this has come at the worst possible time for all of them: Their beloved grandfather, Poppy, who survived the concentration camps in World War II, has died. And when she rails against Liam's off-hand rebuke of Jewish culture, it's essentially filled with thousands of years of crackling rage.

Molly Ranson, Tracee Chimo, and Michael Zegen
Photo by Joan Marcus.
But when it comes time to (unofficially) eulogizing Poppy, you've never met anyone more sincere. Chimo plumbs sadness and respect even deeper in telling Poppy's story, her eyes on the brink of tears as she recounts his years of survival and decades of personal fortification. He mattered to her and Judaism to her, so you understand perfectly why his cherished chai—a religious symbol he hid from the Nazis under his tongue and used to propose to his wife—matters to her as no other part of his estate does. So you have no trouble seeing why Liam's current possession of it—and unwillingness to relinquish it to Daphna—riles her so.

Though this is the central narrative conflict of Bad Jews, it actually covers even more ground, exploring not just how the three Jews we see onstage cope with their own heritage, but also how they relate to the "outsider" in their midst. (Chimo's delivery of an epic rant against Melody's featherweight view of her Delaware upbringing is one for the history books, but everyone else has their moments, too.) The play quickly becomes bigger and more substantial than you might at first anticipate, its lone apartment set (designed by Lauren Halpern) a fitting cage, and its 100-miinute running time more than sufficient for investigating decades of what this family's faith means to it.

In investigating that issue, Harmon has been impressively thorough; his writing is alternately hilarious and lacerating, sparing no one in its indictment of the lack of investment so many have in their lives and religion (if any). His refusal to take sides, showing, as but one example, how easy it is for both Daphna and Liam to hurt and be hurt, only enriches the experience. And he's found a compelling interpreter in director Daniel Aukin, whose staging is taut and tight, exactly the claustrophobic atmosphere in which all of this can best unfold. (Though, it must be said, not every stitch of the oppressive intimacy of the considerably closer confines of the Black Box Theatre, where the play premiered last year, has transferred upstairs to the Laura Pels.)

The actors are all immensely satisfying, and have only deepened in their portrayals since the play's initial engagement. Ettinger finds a surprisingly lush palette of colors in Jonah's self-imposed neutrality, and builds against the odds to a spectacular final payoff that's as moving as it is shocking. Zegen's natural likability buoys and balances Liam, but the actor lets through no undue sympathy, which makes him a cunning foil for Daphna rather than either a punching bag or a land mine. And Ranson perfectly skirts the line between guileless and clueless as Melody.

Still, you can't avoid Daphna or Chimo, who together pack one of the most powerful one-two punches in town. Daphna's determination and the haunting fire Chimo applies to it fuse to form a riveting force of nature that exemplifies theatrical alchemy at its most unexpectedly clever: a demon with the soul of a rabbi. Whether the hell or the heaven will eventually come out on top is something you can't know until the final minutes of Bad Jews, but it ultimately doesn't matter. When a show and a lead performance are this good, everyone's a winner.

Bad Jews
Through December 15
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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