Arguments, issues and savage humor mix up in ‘Bad Jews’

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For 21st-Century Media

Let the games begin! “Bad Jews” is packed with so many vicious arguments that sometimes you want to plug your ears and block out the bickering. With a more skillful cast, this could even be a gleefully entertaining evening.
When written and performed at their best, plays like this are brutally honest and raise critical and complicated issues. That’s why so many plays take place within a tight family unit; on a small, cramped stage, all of the secrets come out.
There’s nothing like a death in the family to bring out the worst in people and this unhappy truth is displayed with delectably savage humor in “Bad Jews.”
Set in a cramped New York City apartment, the play tells the tale of a feud within a Jewish family of cousins which erupts when their grandfather passes away, leaving a precious Holocaust-era heirloom.
In Joshua Harmon’s one-act play at the Walnut Street Theater, Studio on 3, the furious outbursts of greed and jealousy burn with gusto. But the loose dramatic structure barely keeps these brilliant if bombastic arias from turning into a smackdown brawl. The 100-minute satire looks at both Jewish self-loathing and Jewish self-absorption and concludes that neither extreme is ideal.

 Sophie Yavorsky and Greg Fallick in "Bad Jews" at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Sophie Yavorsky and Greg Fallick in “Bad Jews” at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Set in a claustrophobic apartment, with a view of the Hudson River from the bathroom window, cousins Daphna (Sofie Yavorsky), Jonah (Greg Fallick) and Liam (Davy Raphaely) are brought together by the unfortunate event.
A humorous verbal sparring between cousins over sleeping arrangements and family wealth rapidly turns ugly as Daphna battles it out with Liam and his blond girlfriend Melody (Laura Giknis) over who is more deserving of their grandfather Poppy’s chai necklace.
To Daphna, the Chai necklace which endured the Holocaust with Poppy is a religious symbol. Being the most devoted of the bunch, she righteously argues that she deserves to have the chai necklace.
Harmon makes it abundantly clear what the two main characters stand for. Daphna represents an unquestioning belief in faith, tradition and ritual: Liam is a self-styled “bad Jew” who has missed his grandfather’s funeral and is skeptical about all religions.
The contest for this keepsake, which moves from recriminatory skirmishes into a full-blown war of words and an undignified final scrap, throws down provocations every bit as arresting as the play’s title. For Harmon, the strength of the play lies in the potency of their combat which reminds us of the verbal firepower in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
David Stradley’s production strives for the right claustrophobic intensity and passion. And playwright Harmon works to generate appalled laughter and serious thought in equal measure.
The strength of the play lies in the vigor of the combat, yet, the tension between the four tapers off and their arguments lose their bite. Most of the show is devoted to the outbursts between Daphna and Liam; but Yavorsky’s turn as Daphna only occasionally strikes the right balance between haughty, self-righteous entitlement and genuine religious conviction. Therefore, Harmon’s play remains on the surface, an excursion into 20-somethings behaving badly.

Laura Giknis and Davy Raphaely in "Bad Jews" at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.  Photo by Mark Garvin.

Laura Giknis and Davy Raphaely in “Bad Jews” at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.
Photo by Mark Garvin.

My impression was that in this small theater, it seemed as if we were stuck in a shoe box with a couple of hungry hamsters fighting over a single food pellet.
Harmon’s study of how 20-something Jews perceive their cultural background is certainly worth the conversation as more and more young people turn away from organized religion.

“Bad Jews” continues at the Walnut Street Theatre, Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St. in Philadelphia through Dec. 28. Tickets: $30 – $45. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org

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