"Bad Jews" Delivers a Good Time at Long Wharf

By Amy J. Barry

As the title implies, Bad Jews, on stage at Long Wharf Theatre, is a very provocative play.

Written by Joshua Harmon and jam-packed with witty dialogue, the play, which opened in 2013 at the off-Broadway Roundabout Theatre, is a wildly exaggerated farce and yet manages to raise some very nuanced questions about being a contemporary young adult Jew in America.

I don’t know if you have to be Jewish to either appreciate or be offended by this play. I’m not sure how universal it is. My husband enjoyed it, but he’s married to a Jew, so some of the humor and pathos really hit home for him, as it did for me.

The one-act, under 90-minute performance takes place in the New York Upper West Side studio apartment of college student Jonah Haber (Max Michael Miller). His cousin, Diane Feygenbaum (Keilly McQuail) -- who has recently changed her name to the Hebrew Daphna -- arrived from Vassar to attend the funeral of their recently deceased grandfather, Poppy; the glue that held the splintered family together. Jonah’s brother Liam (Michael Steinmetz) is on his way from a skiing weekend with his “shiksa” girlfriend Melody (Christy Escobar).

Joshua is lounging on the sofa, mindlessly playing video games on the TV. Daphna begins ribbing him about living in an apartment with such a prestigious address purchased for him by his parents. Joshua defends it as being only a “small studio.” In response to what Daphna perceives as his entitled, out-of-touch attitude, she says, “But you have a view of the Hudson River from your bathroom!”

Daphna is in search of her Jewish identity. She has recently become more religious and connected to her faith by traveling to Israel, thinking of becoming a rabbi, and mysteriously getting engaged to a Jewish soldier that no one has met. But she is deeply insecure and constantly lashes out at other people.

As the most “Jewish” member of the family, she lays claim to Poppy’s chai -- the Hebrew word for “life.” A Holocaust survivor, the legend is that he hid the gold pendant from the Nazis under his tongue throughout the war.

Liam is Daphna’s polar opposite, at least on the surface. He and Jonah come from a wealthy, assimilated family of non -- or very little -- practicing Jews. Liam is getting his PhD in Japanese culture and dislikes the way his cousin displays her “Jewishness.”

Liam and Daphna clash throughout the play, pushing each other’s buttons to the limit, while Jonah stands on the sidelines and refuses to engage in the warfare. Liam refuses to call Diane by her Hebrew name and to his chagrin, she calls him by his -- Schlomo. They accuse each other of being religious hypocrites. The drama is exacerbated when Daphna discovers that Liam has Poppy’s chai and to her absolute horror, intends to use it to propose to Melody.

As nasty as their individual diatribes are, there is more than a grain of truth in what each of them has to say. They say whatever comes into their heads in fits of rage and without any filter. They say things that literally make you squirm in you seat -- this young playwright doesn’t pull any punches. They say things that some of us think, but would never dare verbalize, and there’s something cathartic about that.

Dizzy blonde, attractive Melody is a sweet innocent that Daphna comments looks like she was conceived in a Talbot’s clothing store. When Daphna asks her where her family is from, Melody says Delaware. When Daphna then asks Melody where her family is really from, unless they’re indigenous Delawareans, Melody’s not sure and doesn’t understand why her heritage is so important to Daphna. Melody’s leg tattoo of a G-clef—she studied opera in college, but is working as an administrator at a non-profit—becomes another sore point for the judgmental Daphna, foreshadowing the play’s unexpected ending.

In one hysterically humorous scene, Daphna asks Melody to sing her a song to calm her nerves. Melody chooses “Summer Time,” which she sings off key, absurdly channeling the voice of a black sharecropper in Porgy and Bess. As the play progresses, Melody ends up having more spunk than expected, and Escobar is kooky and charming in the role.

McQuail and Steinmetz are full-force, spot-on as their characters. It’s astonishing to witness McQuail’s boundless energy as she almost never stops talking and raging throughout the performance. The tricky part is she’s painted as such an unlikable character; it’s hard to find empathy for her.

Although Jonah is supposed to be a young man of few words, Harmon hasn’t given Miller much to work with. His character is overwhelmed by the intensity of Daphna and Liam and he could take it up a notch. Jonah does turn out to be the biggest surprise of all in the powerful and sobering ending.

Oliver Butler’s tight direction keeps the audience riveted to Antje Ellermann’s millennial-style apartment, crammed full of unhappy people and blow-up air mattresses, and in which the imagined bathroom plays a central role.

Bad Jews is a good reminder that we can’t choose our families but we can choose to live honorable lives, and, as Melody pleads, at least treat one another with civility.

Bad Jews is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through March 22. Tickets online at www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.


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