The death of a loved one can certainly bring a family together — sometimes close enough to come to blows! At the New Vic on April 14, Ensemble Theatre Company presents Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, a play that brings two volatile members of the Feygenbaum family face to face and head to head as they vie for one of their late grandfather’s treasured religious artifacts. Directed by Jonathan Fox, Bad Jews is a razor-sharp comedy with a mean streak that pits cousins Daphna and Liam against each other in a battle of wills designed to secure one of them the spoils of their grandfather’s will.
The object in question is a necklace featuring the chai symbol, which represents the Hebrew word for life. Best known to the goyim in the context of the toast, “l’chaim!” the chai charm on Grandpa’s necklace, which he kept safely hidden under his tongue while imprisoned in a concentration camp, is an important relic that symbolizes both family and faith — one that both cousins feel they deserve. Daphna, who considers herself the most devout of her family members (she even has a plan to attend rabbinical school in Israel), feels her right to the necklace should be respected by her less religious cousins, Liam and Jonah.
The scene of the battle royale is a tiny Manhattan apartment: Liam misses the funeral due to a lost iPhone and arrives at Daphna’s flat with his secular girlfriend, Melody. Melody is not the only casualty of the war between cousins; Liam’s younger brother, Jonah, is also caught in the cross fire of Daphna’s acerbic accusations regarding Liam’s milquetoast approach to Judaism; and Liam’s derisive responses to Daphna’s disdain.
After the run in Santa Barbara, Ensemble plans to take the production to Germany with the English Theatre Frankfurt. “It’s exciting to be taking ETC’s production of Bad Jews to Germany for its premiere,” said director Fox, who is also Ensemble’s artistic director. “The play presents interesting challenges, not least of which is its title, which is how nonobservant Jews often refer to themselves. But I think the play speaks to the thorny dynamics within all families, and speaks in a very funny way.”
Ensemble’s production features Eden Malyn as Daphna, playing opposite Adam Silver as Liam. Jonah, the long-suffering little brother who’s been crashing in Daphna’s apartment, is played by Cory Kahane, who recently performed the role at Chicago’s Theater Wit, Royal George Theatre, and North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Hapless Melody, unprepared for the intensity of the Feygenbaum family dynamic, is played by Stephanie Burden.
Bad Jews has become a widely popular comedy in the last several years and has been garnering positive reviews in major cities. Playwright Harmon was inspired to write the play after attending a service that featured speakers whose family members were concentration camp survivors. He wrote the play but wasn’t sure of its viability until he had members of his own family perform an impromptu reading at the kitchen table. It was then that he recognized the crescendos and diminuendos of the narrative — and the important messages the play conveyed. Beyond the delightfully malicious infighting of a high-strung New York family, Bad Jews explores grief and the importance of faith and family legacy.
Bad Jews runs Wednesdays-Sundays, April 14-May 1, at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). Call 965-5400 or see ensembletheatre.com.