The term “bad jew” as used by the characters in Joshua Harmon’s acrimonious comedy of the same name, now playing at the New Vic and staged by Ensemble Theatre Company, is not a term of interracial abuse, but rather one of intra-religious self-consciousness. Outsiders would (and should!) forebear from throwing this one around, while Jewish people are free to use it whenever they feel that any Jew — particularly oneself — is somehow at variance with the traditional obligations of the faith.
In Harmon’s play, it’s both thrown around playfully for a bit and then wielded like a dart and sent flying toward the most vulnerable spots of one’s opponent. The wielder in chief of these pointed remarks is Daphna (Eden Malyn), a rigorously self-righteous Vassar student who plans to move to Israel for her rabbinical studies following graduation. As the curtain rises, she’s taking stock of the situation in the Riverside Drive studio apartment that her aunt and uncle have purchased for her cousin Jonah (Cory Kahane). The occasion is the passing of their mutual grandfather, who they refer to as Poppy. Poppy was a Holocaust survivor, and Daphna has her heart set on inheriting Poppy’s chai, a Hebrew symbol for life cast in gold that Poppy managed to save from confiscation in the camps by holding it in his mouth.
As played by Malyn, Daphna resembles a geyser, the kind, like Old Faithful, that can be counted on to go off at regular intervals. Her harangues can be triggered by jealousy — the first one has to do with how unfair it is that Jonah gets such a nice apartment — or by threats to her territory, as we see when she sets about deciding who is sleeping where. Because the real problem, and the sitcom-like dilemma that gets the play’s conflict rolling, is not even so much the fate of Poppy’s chai as it is a question of the scarcity of New York real estate. You see there’s another cousin, Jonah’s older brother, Liam (Adam Silver), and he’s on his way to the apartment with his shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Stephanie Burden). It may have a view of the Hudson River from the bathroom, but Jonah’s studio is still only one room, and hardly big enough for two — never mind four.
Despite a variety of naturalistic touches, including an excellent and evocative set by Charlie Corcoran, Bad Jews eschews realism for something more like a staged debate. In a series of increasingly gladiatorial encounters, Daphna and Liam deliver long speeches packed with rhetorical flourishes and studded with nasty put-downs. With a lesser cast, these characters could be excruciating in their mean-spiritedness, but Silver in particular infuses Liam’s relentless impatience and arrogance with just enough self-awareness to render him tolerable.
Daphna is another story, and in an equally powerful performance that’s easily the most interesting and frightening aspect of the play, Malyn commits fully to her bullying, unstoppable style. Burden and Kahane provide much-needed comic relief and contrast to the burning conflict that consumes the two characters in the middle.
Playwright Harmon is a recent Juilliard graduate, and, while it’s easy to see why this witty and ferocious exercise in family discord has become so popular, the script shows signs of its author’s inexperience. Daphna’s rage can feel unmotivated, and Liam’s love for Melody remains as mysterious to the audience as it is to his cousin, although less infuriating. Finally, the tacked-on twist at the end does too little, too late to leaven this Passover matzo with profundity.