Joshua Harmon's abrasive comedy raises solid questions about cultural heritage alongside lots of nervous laughter.
Editors' note: Kelly O'Sullivan replaces Erica Bittner for the Royal George run of Bad Jews; as of November 11, Margo Chervony replaces Laura Lapidus. The following is our original review of the show at Theater Wit.
Daphna (Laura Lapidus), a Vassar senior whose identity is entirely, wholly wrapped up in her Jewishness, lords it over everyone around her in Joshua Harmon’s often uncomfortable-in-a-good-way 2012 comedy. The occasion is the night following the funeral of her beloved grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and Daphna (née Diana, but she’s lately insisting on her Hebrew name) is staying over in the apartment shared by her cousins, the appeasing Jonah (Cory Kahane) and the more combative Liam (a seething Ian Paul Custer), who missed the funeral thanks to losing his phone while on a ski trip with his bland, blonde shiksa girlfriend Melody (Erica Bittner). The effortlessly abrasive Daphna is on a mission to ensure she inherits the late Poppy’s medallion of the Hebrew symbol chai, which he legendarily squirreled away throughout his time in a concentration camp.
It’s that last point—along with Daphna’s self-righteous disdain for what she sees as Liam’s disdain for their heritage—that sets up the play’s main conflict: Liam, despite his general secularism, has his own reasons for wanting Poppy’s chai. Harmon’s work gets off to a bit of a rough start in Jeremy Wechsler’s staging for Theater Wit; in the first 20 or so minutes before Liam and Melody arrive, Daphna (a tremendously disquieting performance by Lapidus) just comes across as kind of a harridan. That’s not to say she wilts upon her older cousin’s arrival. But it’s the passive-aggressive, then aggressive-aggressive face-off between Daphna and Liam that forms the core of Harmon’s comedy, bringing with it nuanced questions about cultural identity and assimilation and a lot of nervous laughter. Daphna ends up a bit too monstrous, perhaps, but Lapidus sells it. These are very good Bad Jews.
Theater Wit. By Joshua Harmon. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler. With Laura Lapidus, Ian Paul Custer, Cory Kahane, Erica Bittner. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.