To say that I sat watching Goodluck Macbeth’s sneak preview performance of Bad Jews misses the mark. Rather, I squirmed for almost the entire 90 minutes as the cast of four hurled insults and spewed hatred at each other, with plenty of spatter left over for the audience.
Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is an uncomfortable, provocative look at what it means to honor tradition and family history. It examines whether the sheer number of rules followed or customs upheld is an indicator of a person’s goodness—and whether disavowing religion altogether might also be dangerous.
Few subjects provoke such savage argument as religion—an irony that’s not lost on playwright Harmon or any of us watching the chaos. Fortunately, his script and some fine acting deliver enough laughs to make it enjoyable.
Daphna Feygenbaum (played by Hannah Gebensleben) is staying with her cousin Jonah (Kameron Watson) at the New York apartment his parents bought him. It’s the night following the funeral of their grandfather, or Poppy. Daphna is a fired-up, hard-to-please Jewish idealist. She’s a stereotype: a demanding, whiny, cheap, overly hairy Jew who’s impossible to please and never shuts up. And tonight, her ire is directed at Liam, Jonah’s absent brother, who went skiing with his girlfriend in Aspen, dropped his iPhone from a ski lift, and missed Poppy’s funeral.
By the time Liam (Cody Canon) and his girlfriend Melody (Megan Fitzpatrick) finally arrive at Jonah’s apartment, we’re all sick to f-ing death of Daphna.
Liam is her polar opposite, not terribly interested in any religion. In his mind, Daphna’s unyielding, aggressive, holier-than-thou Jewishness makes her a misery to be around—exactly the opposite of what he believes faith should do for a person.
Melody is by contrast all sunshine and rainbows. She’s a blond Caucasian from Delaware who has no idea where her family came from and couldn’t care less.
But it’s Daphna’s request to keep Poppy’s chai—a gold medallion bearing a Hebrew symbol meaning “life”—that unleashes holy war, with Jonah and Melody caught in the crossfire. She argues that she’s the most Jewish of the cousins, and therefore most deserving. But Liam has it, she wants it and Poppy’s intentions for the medallion, which he smuggled in and out of a concentration camp under his tongue, are murky at best. Finally, the bickering reaches a fierce climax that surprises them all.
Daphna’s entitlement is hard to stomach. Yet I found myself thinking that she had a point. And as a secular person, I identified early on with Liam, but increasingly found myself questioning his motives and disliking his intolerance almost as much.
Gebensleben is grating as Daphna. Maybe Harmon wrote her this way. But there’s a sense that she should also have some humanity and an aching heart with which we can identify. And she doesn’t.
Canon’s outstanding performance as Liam, ranging from visceral anger to surprising softness, is the best part of the show. And Fitzpatrick’s Melody is refreshingly uncomplicated, a warm light in a cold, dark room. She’s hilariously oblivious to Daphna’s insults, and her musical talents deliver the best laugh of the entire show.
And you’ll laugh a lot, but one thing’s for sure—there’s enough family tension here to get you all the way to Hanukkah.