Michael Steinmetz

Kvetching Cousins

Review of Bad Jews at Long Wharf Theatre Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Oliver Butler, brings to the Long Wharf the sharpest comedy I’ve seen there. This is comedy that draws blood, where the situations, so far from smacking of sit-com chuckles or of Woody Allenesque irony, are fraught with the awkward and the unpleasant. Like the stuff that really happens when families get together.

At the basis of Bad Jews is what Jewishness is supposed to mean to the current crop of twenty-somethings. Poppy, the patriarch who survived the Holocaust and kept his father’s heirloom chai pendant—a combination of two Hebrew letters that signifies “life”—beneath his tongue for two years in the death camps, has just passed away. At his daughter’s Upper West Side apartment they’re sitting shiva, but the play takes place in an efficiency the family keeps for guests—in this case, two sons home from college who can’t stay in their parents’ apartment because the bedroom of the younger, Jonah (Max Michael Miller), has become a home office, while the room of Liam (Michael Steinmetz), the older, is hosting a visiting aunt and uncle; also staying in the efficiency is the daughter of the latter couple, Daphna, née Diana (Keilly McQuail), the boys’ cousin. The efficiency, located in the same building as the parental spread, is equipped with a pull-out sofa and two inflatable air mattresses, slumber-party style. And it’s here that a comic drama of blood and guts and laughs unfolds.

When she wants to ingratiate herself, as she does with her video-game-playing, boxers-wearing cousin Jonah, Daphna is gooey and persistent. He seems an easy going sort and no match for her stated intent to have Poppy’s chai for herself, as she, in her hyper-awareness of Jewishness, feels she so clearly deserves. We can assume this isn’t going to go over so well with older cousin Liam, who soon arrives, accompanied by his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Christy Escobar), both fresh from the slopes of Aspen, cutting short a ski trip to pay respects, but not in time for the funeral.

Served up in short order are two amazing dressing-downs: Liam delivers to Melody and Jonah, while Daphna is in the bathroom sullenly brushing her hair, a frantic annihilation of Daphna’s character and pretensions, an avalanche of animosity and aggravation that buries all fellow feeling. It’s both horrible and hilarious. And that’s before he even learns of his cousin’s designs on the chai pendant. The other screed is delivered by Daphna to her cousins, while Melody inhabits the bathroom, tearing apart Liam for everything from studying other cultures—he’s in graduate study on Japan—rather than his own, to his choice of non-Jewish girls who are clearly inferior to him. In the hands of director Butler, who directed Will Eno’s sharp as tacks domestic comedy Open House last year at Roundabout in New York, Harmon’s play gets at the flowing loathing that only people who have resented each other from childhood can level at one another. It’s lethal, and cathartic as only bilious comedy can be.

At the heart of the play—its pained heart actually—is the difficult burden of Jewishness, an ethnic identity that is also ethical, that both imposes and succors. For some, it’s something to be flipped off—as Liam does in the story Daphna tells of him boasting he’s a “bad Jew”—and for others something to be claimed at all cost, as Daphna tries to do, even if it means denying her efforts—revealed by Liam—to identify with Princess Di as a child. In other words, no one holds your follies hostage like your kin, and when one needs ammunition, growing up together will always provide it.

Most of the interactions turn on Daphna’s commitment to outrage—and McQuail is exquisite at registering it: outrage not only at the indignities that have been visited upon the Jewish race since time immemorial, but particularly—pointedly—relentlessly—the indignities perpetrated by the uncaring assimilationists and cultural relativists among the Jews of her generation. Hers is an indignation that bristles in every pore. And the symbol not only of Jewishness as she conceives it—as family, tradition and respect for the ages—but also of the indifference to all of that by her superior and financially better-off elder cousin is Poppy’s talismanic chai. It’s also the pendant penniless Poppy used to propose to his bride; Liam insists he has received both Poppy’s chai and his blessing for his own proposal to Melody. Thus, the actual meaning of the chai gets further complicated. Is it meant to represent the past and all those murdered Jews, and to be handed down now as a keepsake of commemoration? Or, is it meant to represent the future, an heirloom for the eldest among Poppy’s grandchildren as he begins a family—even if with a woman who says her people have “always” been in Delaware and has a hard time imagining the meaning of ancestors?

Bad Jews makes us consider these themes as they surface in the give-and-take of these somewhat spoiled cousins. As Jonah, the quiet one who wants to stay out of the squabbling, Max Michael Miller offers a range of pained reactions and non-reactions and, in the end, more intensity than one would suspect of him. As Melody, blithe and polite, who happens unwittingly into this upper West Side minefield, Christy Escobar plays up Melody’s fecklessness but has the guts to silence headstrong Liam when necessary; she also gets a show-stopping turn doing a good job of singing badly “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess (a moment full of comic implications). As Liam, Michael Steinmetz, besides investing his diatribe against Daphna with all the agitated scorn it requires, is often at his best when silent. He hears out Daphna’s harangue with the stoical superiority that seems his birthright in a family that has both suffered and prospered, and his dogged gathering of his and his fiancée’s things, after she proves something more of a princess than he perhaps thought, speaks volumes. Good as all that is, it’s Keilly McQuail’s show all the way. Her Daphna is a constant barrage of mannerisms—preening, undulating, striking poses, hanging fire with one of the most exaggerated glares conceivable. Impossible to live with as she is, Daphna also manifests the impossibility of living up to a past that her generation has only a tenuous relation to through elders who, as Liam says, will forever only be part of the fuzzy feelings of childhood.

It may be that Harmon’s play is a bit insular for a general audience, but the force of the personalities on view here place such spectators in the place of Melody, well-meaning and aghast at how vicious spinning the truth can be. Bad Jews writhes with galvanic comedy, full of the flash of wit and the clash of wills. It zings and bites and goes for the throat—and has a lot of fun doing it.

[Full disclosure: I’m from Delaware, and am the product of the kind of northern European mix that Melody eventually claims, but I also spent a fair amount of time, for a time, around the Wilmington JJC, on Garden of Eden Road, and I was gripped, and in stitches, throughout this serious comedy.]


Bad Jews By Joshua Harmon Directed by Oliver Butler

Set Design: Antje Ellermann; Costume Design: Paul Carey; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: M. L. Dogg; Hair & Makeup Design: Dave Bova; Fight Director: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Lindsey Turteltaub; Photography: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre Februrary 18-March 22, 2015