“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Dorothy is asked in the Munchkinland sequence in The Wizard of Oz. In Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon’s highly entertaining dark comedy, the question posed is, “Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew?” And the answer isn’t so simple.
Bad Jews revolves around two very pushy cousins – the college-age, frizzy-haired Diana (Tracee Chimo), who proudly flaunts her Judaism, rabbinical aspirations and the Israeli boyfriend she supposedly met on a Birthright trip, and the slightly older Liam (Michael Zegen), an intellectual who is, if not a self-hating Jew, at least made uncomfortable by Daphna’s showy and zealous nature.
The play is set in a Manhattan apartment immediately after the funeral of their late grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor, and concerns how Diana – who prefers to go by her Hebrew name Daphna – and Liam fight with determination over possession of their grandfather’s Chai necklace, a meaningful family heirloom.
They are joined by Liam’s quieter, seemingly weaker brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) and sunny, extremely friendly shiksa girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson, best known for the Carrie revival). While Diana and Liam each try to win Jonah’s allegiance, Diana treats Melody like an idiot and takes advantage of her kindness. Diana even asks Melody to sing, and she indulges her with a stupefying rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess that leaves Liam embarrassed.
The Roundabout Theatre Company produced Bad Jews a year ago at the company’s 62-seat black-box space. This marks the first time the Roundabout Theatre Company has transferred a play that premiered at the black-box space to its larger upstairs Off-Broadway theater.
To those who appreciate tight, neatly structured playwriting with well-motivated characters as well as madcap comedy, Bad Jews is a welcome breath of fresh air. It brings to mind Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, another compelling 90-minute comedic drama with just four characters, devised as a single scene without any pause, where family members rise up and fight against each other. Both Liam and Diana receive show-stopping monologues in which each rages on about the other.
Compared to a year ago, the text has been further tightened. Under Daniel Aukin’s precise direction, the small cast works together perfectly well. Chimo, a star in the making who has stood out in the Off-Broadway stagings of Circle Mirror Transformation and Bachelorette, brings a fierce edge to Diana and captures all the comedy. And truth to be told, the production works better in a proscenium house, which is better suited to comedy than the black-box, where audience members were perhaps too close for comfort to this family breakdown.