A Potent “Bad Jews” at Long Wharf

by Tom Holehan

You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate “Bad Jews”, the corrosively funny off-Broadway hit currently packing them in at the Long Wharf Theatre.This bold and audacious new play by Joshua Harmon has immediately kicked Long Wharf’s previously less-than-special 50th anniversary season into high gear. It is already the best theatre I’ve seen this season and, lucky you, it’s already been extended in New Haven through March 29. Make tracks.

On the eve of sitting Shiva for their beloved grandfather, Jonah (Max Michael Miller) and cousin Daphna (Keilly McQuail, sensational) unite for an uneasy reunion made more so when Jonah’s older brother Liam (Michael Steinmetz) arrives on the scene with his blond shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Christy Escobar). Liam, a self-proclaimed atheist, has always locked horns with Daphna who wears her religion like a badge of honor and whom Liam refers to as “Super Jew”. The clash deepens when Daphna insists that she be given a symbolic piece of jewelry that belonged to their grandfather, a piece that Liam currently has in his possession. Issues of faith and family come to a head with some of the most explosive verbal dynamics heard in a drama since Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Although Harmon has written a quartet of roles that any actor would hock his or her prized puppy to play, the role of Daphna has to be one that will be coveted by any actress worth her Equity card for years to come. The passion that burns inside Daphna is palpable and she repels and attracts in equal measure. She is a character who clearly doesn’t want to waste a moment of precious life and in the hands of the amazing Keilly McQuail, it turns out to be the performance of the season. I can't imagine I'll have the pleasure of witnessing a better actor this year inhabiting a role quite like McQuail does in "Bad Jews". She is thoroughly mesmerizing.

But this is still an acting ensemble of equals. Steinmetz, who understudied both male roles in the New York production, is terrific as Liam, a man who believes he has compromised for all the right reasons and whose showdown with Daphna brings explosive theatrical fireworks to Long Wharf’s intimate stage. As his WASP girlfriend, Escobar is touching and funny, no more so than late in the play when, at the request of Daphna, she sings a selection from “Porgy and Bess”. Miller’s passive performance perfectly captures the conflicted nature Jonah feels caught between two verbal tyrants. His final moments in the play, however, (which no one should reveal) are as poignant and quietly potent a climax as you are apt to see on any stage this year.

Antje Ellermann’s smart Upper West Side apartment setting traps the foursome between its pull-out sofa and blow-up mattresses. Under Oliver Butler’s knowing direction, the obstacles work extremely well in provoking the claustrophobia the characters slowly begin to feel. There is some brief stage violence by fight director Tim Acito late in the play that wasn’t overly convincing at the performance I caught, but this is a minor quibble to be sure. “Bad Jews” is still, without reservations, must-see viewing.

“Bad Jews” continues until March 29 at the Long Wharf Theatre Stage II in New Haven.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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