BY TULIS McCALL
A Bad Jew, according to this weary script, is someone who breaks a rule – usually having to do with diet. Like breaking a fast prematurely and then shrugging it off. For Daphna Feygenbaum (Tracee Chimo) this is tantamount to spitting in the eye of history. Forget your Jewish roots and what will happen to that unbroken golden vein that reaches directly from you back to before you-know-who walked the earth. The zeal to which Daphna clings to this philosophy is the centerboard of Joshua Harmon’s script. But it is not strong enough to keep the play from capsizing.
We meet Daphna and her cousin Jonah Haver (Philip Ettinger) late on the night that their grandfather, Poppy, was buried. Poppy was a beloved man who lived through the Holocaust and survived a concentration camp as well. He was treasured in the family, and as we learn about him, it seems that part of the reason Poppy was treasured was that he loved everyone. Including Daphna, who begins the evening as grating and ends it being a candidate for a mob hit. Poppy has left one piece of jewelry behind – his golden “Chai” – a Jewish symbol of the Hebrew word meaning “Life”. Poppy carried it under his tongue all the time he was at the concentration camp and gave it to his future wife in lieu of a ring. When they could afford a ring, she returned it to Poppy and he wore it all his life. Now that he is gone Daphna wants the Chai and is campaigning for it. Jonah does not want it, so the next person on Daphna’s list is her cousin Liam (Michael Zegen). .
Liam, as it turns out, did not make it to the funeral on account of he dropped his iPhone in the snow where he was vacationing with his girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson). That he was vacationing while his grandfather was dying is lost on no one except Liam himself. When he arrives, therefore, we already don’t like him much. So watching him and Daphna go at it is a kick for about 30 seconds, but soon makes us want to check to see if we are each packing a chair and a whip in case things escalate the way we expect.
And they do escalate. As a matter of fact, the argument never stops. But it also never goes anywhere. It reaches and maintain a sort of absurd height with people leaving the studio apartment proper (bought by Liam and Jonah’s parents as a gift to them) and going into the bathroom for extended periods of time. That they can hear everything being said about them is clear to us because the lines are delivered at top volume, but nothing is said about this until well into the play.
And may I just say that we cannot blame the actors here. They make the most with what they have. Tracee Chimo reveals as many colors as she can in the delusional Daphna, but this is a character who is a blender set at high speed and missing a lid. Philip Ettinger’s Jonah appears to suffer from Asperger Syndrome, so ill equipped is he to communicate – and since nothing like this is mentioned in the script, one wonders at the choice, although it is done well. Michael Zegen’s Laim is a petulant young man with a pre-set fuse as short as a small wick, and verbal skills that he seems to have honed at the feet of James Spader. Molly Ranson is given the most difficult task of watching from the sidelines – when she is not staring at her phone – and during the play’s climax is actually sitting on a pull out couch with her back to us so that we can only see the top of her head. In addition they are given the unenviable task of marching (literally) around a set that is really an obstacle course complete with one fold out couch (facing upstage) and two limp blow up beds. What??? No wonder they spend so much time in the bathroom – it’s the only free floor space for miles around.
There is a story lurking here, and it could have been a good one. Grandchildren who have moved up a peg in the family pecking order are faced with life without their elder. Their grief does not unite them. It splits them like a log being cut for kindling. One clings to heritage she embellishes. Another has no future other than making it through the visitation from relations. One comes home dragging more guilt than he knows, and his chosen companion is treading water.
How the story got away is a mystery. But it did, and more’s the pity for that.
Bad Jews – By Joshua Harmon; directed by Daniel Aukin; sets by Lauren Helpern; costumes by Dane Laffrey; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Shane Rettig; hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene; production stage manager, Beverly Jenkins; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, Nicholas J. Caccavo; associate managing director, Greg Backstrom; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager. At the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (212) 719-1300, roundabouttheater.org. Through December 15. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Tracee Chimo (Daphna Feygenbaum), Philip Ettinger (Jonah Haber), Molly Ranson (Melody) and Michael Zegen (Liam Haber).