By Charlene Baldridge
Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” seen in its opening performance Jan. 21 at Cygnet Theatre, is set in a present day studio apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.
Billed as 90 minutes in length, it is played without interval, causing one to opine that if there were an interval, some in the audience might flee because the play’s invective, however hilarious, is sometimes challenging, especially to those who spend a lot of time and energy avoiding confrontation.
Jonah Haber (played by Tom Zohar with inner writhing, outer stillness) is one of those. To avoid listening to his harridan, “good Jew” cousin Daphna Feygenbaum (Danielle Frimer), with whom he’s been stuck for two days in his parents’ spare apartment, he plays video games. Their grandfather’s funeral has already occurred, and Daphna is castigating Jonah’s brother Liam (John Odess-Rubin) for missing it, even though he’s soon to arrive to sit a weeklong shiva. It seems Liam dropped his cellphone off a ski lift and was thus incommunicado at the time of Poppy’s passing.
When Liam arrives with his endearing, slightly ditsy, shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Katie Sapper), Daphna has further fuel for her denouncement of his “bad Jew” lifestyle, in which he isn’t kosher or even observant, dates women out of his class and religion, and dares to go for his Ph.D. in contemporary Japanese culture.
Daphna, on the other hand, is ardently religious and headed for rabbinical studies. In her mind this entitles her to inherit their grandfather’s most precious relic, a golden chai necklace, symbol of the living God and the courageous, faithful life. During his Holocaust imprisonment, Poppy concealed the pendant under his tongue, and when liberated he gave it to the woman who made him want to live again even though he had lost his entire family. She became Liam and Jonah’s grandmother.
As they argue passionately over possession of the chai (pronounced ”hi”), which Liam already has and intends to give to Melody, Liam and his cousin, uber Jew Daphna, explore what it means to be a Jew. She cuts no slack.
The play’s comic relief is provided by Jonah and by Melody, a former music student who demonstrates why she went into another field with an indescribable, deliciously bad rendition of “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” Sapper, a musical theater veteran and a fine comic, most admirably catches her character’s good-natured intent.
All roles are played splendidly under the direction of Cygnet Associate Artistic Director Rob Lutfy, who is proving an invaluable asset to this fine theater company headed by Sean Murray and Bill Schmidt. Lutfy’s design team comprises sound designer Kevin Anthenill, scenic designer Sean Fanning, costume designer Danita Lee, and lighting designer R. Craig Wolf.