As the organized Jewish community debates the changing nature of Jewish identity in America uncovered by the recent Pew study, theatergoers in New York are engaging in a similar debate spurred on by Bad Jews, a new play by Josh Harmon being presented off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, following a developmental production last fall at the Roundabout Underground Black Box.
On its surface, Bad Jews is a dark comedy about cousins reuniting at their grandfather’s shiva, butting heads about who should inherit a chai necklace their beloved Poppy had managed to hold on to through his time in a concentration camp. But Bad Jews is really a play of ideas, offering one hundred minutes of debate about what Jewish identity means for the grandchildren of survivors and contemporary twenty-something American Jews. Representing the “religion matters most” camp is Daphna (Tracee Chimo), a strident senior at Vassar who hopes to marry the Israeli soldier she slept with on Birthright, make aliyah, and attend rabbinical school. Taking the opposing view is Liam (Michael Zegen), her elder cousin who has little to no interest in Judaism or Jewishness, but feels a deep familial connection to what the chai necklace represents. Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) just wants to be left out of the argument. The ensuing battle, which is further intensified by the presence of Liam’s perky, privileged, non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson), will either fascinate or exhaust you, depending on how many times you’ve had this conversation yourself.
Director Daniel Aukin has done a fantastic job creating an entire world from a studio apartment and four actors, encouraging highly specific, multifaceted performances from the entire cast. The note-perfect design by Laura Helpern (sets), Mark Barton (lights), Dane Laffrey (costumes), and Shane Rettig (sound) allows the performances to take center stage while grounding the characters in a precise Upper West Side milieu.
At times the dialogue feels like the Jewschool comments section come to life, and yes, you’ll want to punch these characters in the face as much as you want to punch the screen when reading this blog. But is a testament to excellence of both the director and all four actors that despite wishing I would never have to spend time with these characters in real life, I was glued to my chair to watch the nuanced, textured performances.
Ultimately, though, Bad Jews the play fails its cast on two levels: as a play of ideas, it foregrounds the debate around the meaning of Jewish identity to the detriment of dramatic momentum. At times the show feels more like a disputation than a drama. But Bad Jews also falls short of its own ambitions, in that while Daphna makes her case fully, if obnoxiously, Liam’s arguments rarely amount to much more than surface assertions like “I lost my grandfather too.” If Liam is actually the brilliant PhD candidate in cultural studies we’re told he is, he deserves at least one speech where he can make the case of what the chai — and by extension, his grandfather and perhaps even his Jewishness — means to him, rather than simply repeating that it does mean something to him.
Despite my misgivings about the play, I haven’t stopped thinking about it and discussing it since I’ve seen it. The Roundabout is eager to capitalize on this, having crafted a marketing campaign around “Team Daphna” and “Team Liam,” selling buttons emblazoned with each slogan, encouraging audience members to tweet with the #TeamDaphna and #TeamLiam hashtags, and providing wall in the theater lobby where patrons can write their thoughts on a post-it note affixed beneath a Team Daphna or Team Liam sign, right out of the Camp Ramah playbook. Frankly, I found this campaign a bit crass, particularly because the play itself — through the characters of Melody and Jonah — resists this kind of binary reductionism. Are we truly unable to debate complex questions of identity without picking sides and pledging allegiances? This, of course, is one of the questions the play itself pushes us to consider. Given how unpleasant both Daphna and Liam turn out to be, we can only pray (or, for #TeamLiam, hope) that we can.
Bad Jews opened on October 3, 2013 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) in a limited engagement through December 15, 2013. Tickets are available online at roundabouttheatre.org, by phone at (212) 719-1300, or in person at the Laura Pels Box Office (111 West 46th Street). Tickets are $77.