A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
You definitely don't have to be Jewish to find plenty to laugh at and — if you're unlucky enough to have a sanctimonious, razor-tongued relative like Daphna Feygenbaum (Tracee Chimo) — to identify with. Even without a Daphna on the family tree, there are plenty of problems likely to cause bad feelings and even long lasting hostilities in families of all faiths: envy and resentment of more successful relatives . . one family member's lording superiority over ohters. . . a squabbles over an inheritance.
True to the title, the Haber-Feygenbaum clan is Jewish and one question sure to be addressed is who among them is a bad or a good Jew. The occasion Harmon has concocted to bring the family's young adults under one roof for a long and contentious sleepover is the funeral of their beloved grandfather. That makes it open sesame for Daphna to prove that she's capable of setting off bombs in all of these problem areas.
As the above quoted interchange indicates, Daphna admiration for the apartment Jonathan's (Philip Ettinger) parents bought for him and his brother cloaks a long-standing envy of the Habers'wealth. That same conversation also lets us see that Jonathan is not the smartest cousin we're going to meet. This ability to establish situations and characters with verbal economy is one of Mr. Harmon's greatest strengths.
As Daphna masks her envy, so she backs her claim to being the best Jew in the family with talk about Israeli boyfriend (whom no one has ever met him) and her plans to join him when she graduates Vassar and makes Aliyah. Even the name change from Diane to Daphna is part of her flag waving Uber-Jewishness. Naturally she's judgmental of her non-observant cousin Liam whoo has yet to bring home a Jewish girl friend and didn't even get to his grandfather's funeral. Unsurprisingly, sparks of these cousins' longstanding mutual disdain are more than likely to burst into a full fledged fire.
And they sure do.
Liam more than matches Daphna's hostility. The idea of spending a night in the same room with her is totally repellent. And so his arrival turns a the tiny apartment into a war zone. Even the mattresses that take up just about every inch of Lauren Helpern's impeccably true to New York's luxury priced teensy apartments, are subject to controversy.
All this bad familial kharma would be more painful than fun to watch without Tracee Chimo and Michael Zegen as the chief warriors and Philip Ettinger and Molly Ranson as Liam's nebbishy brother and shiksa girl friend Melody (what else could she be?)
As for the third main cause for family disagreements, there's the late Poppy's Chai. This religious medallion (it could as easily be a Christopher medal if this were a Catholic family) though not exactly an heirloom that would fetch a small fortune at a Sotheby auction, does have enormous sentimental value. Seems "Poppy" managed to hang onto it throughout his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp.
As might be expected, Daphna feels that as the family's only true upholder of the faith, "Poppy" would have wanted her to have the chai. Imagine her reaction when Liam declares himself the rightful heir and is in fact in possession of it. As his grandfather gave it to his intended wife as a symbol to make her part of the family, so Liam intends to give it to Melody when he proposes to her. Since it was his mother who gave it to him, if this story wasn't limited to a single night, we'd be more than likely see Daphna direct some of her venom at her aunt.
The already uncivil interplay between Daphna and Liam explodes into a full blown battle once the ownership of the Chai is brought up. Daphna's manipulative bitchiness and Liam's equally spiteful rantings makes both fit the play's title.
Unpleasant as all this may sound, Mr. Harmon knows how to make nastiness funny and create characters with depth beneath their stereotypical facades. Fortunately the original cast is back to bring every bit of subtle nuance and all the laughs to this post funeral confrontation.
The obnoxious Daphna is the the play's chief meanie but also its most complex character. Tracee Chimo is so into this character's attack dog mode that she's comes off as almost irredeemably despicable. But look closely at her face and you'll catch more than a few glimpses of the far less self-assured girl beneath the self-righteous virago.
Michael Zegen's Liam is not a very nice guy either. His likeability is not helped by his lack of humor (The script's introductory notes describe him as having as much of a sense of humor as an overdue library book). Zegen has one long rant that besides being wonderfully entertaining and physical is also relevatory in what it tells us about Daphne.
Molly Ranson’s chief function as Melody is to add a comic non-Jewish character to the mix and, like Ettinger's Jonathan, to avoid being caught up in the Daphna-Liam brouhaha. But Harmon has given both actors a chance to be more than second bananas.
Ransom makes the most of a chance to sing a hilariously jarring "Summertime" but also convincingly shows herself to be tough enough not cave in to Daphna's needling. The peace at any price Jonah has his own special moment to help us understand that, their differences notwithstanding, all three cousins feel impelled to pay tribute to their grandfather's courage and strength. This momentary demonstration of how even the most acrimonious kinships are kept alive by joint family myths and memories also has a nice comic counterpart in a scene when the cousins stop fighting long enough for a congenial recollection of a long ago family outing.
Mr. Harmon's ability to create a laugh a minute comedy, could easily be dismissed being too facile and often testing credibility if his characters weren't all layered and genuine. That said, Bad Jews would be even better if it were slimmed down by at least 10 minutes. Still, it's nice to have the debut production's actors and designers on board and Daniel Aukin to once again conduct traffic over and around the mattresses in the Haber studio.
While the entire ensemble is top notch, it's the almost impossible to replace performance of Tracie Chimo that will determine how well Bad Jews will do in the regional productions it's more than likely to get.In the meantime, let's hope that TV producers won't lure him away before we have a chance to see at least a few more of his plays.
To read Simon Saltzman's review when Bad Jews premiered in the Black Box space go here.