Chicago Theatre Review
Bad Jews – Theatre Wit
At war, two cousins.The lines are drawn, the battleground is readied. Shortly after the lights rise on a promisingly upscale New York City studio apartment, overstuffed with two double beds, a blow-up mattress and a clutter of suitcases, scattered clothing and an assortment of personal effects, the war games begin and don’t let up until the final curtain.
First we meet young Jonah, trying hard to hide inside his laptop and video games. He’s doing his best to escape Diana (or Daphna, as she prefers to be called), his harpy of a cousin, a smart-mouthed senior at Vassar, who’s crashing with her cousins at the Big Apple apartment that the boys’ parents purchased for them. Their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, has passed away after a long illness, and the family’s gathered for the funeral and to sit Shiva. Jonah’s older brother Shlomo (or Liam, as he prefers to be called) wasn’t aware that his Grandfather had died, being unreachable after dropping his cell phone from an Aspen ski lift during his vacation. As a result, Liam’s not only missed the funeral; he’s shown up at the apartment late at night with Melody, his blond-haired, blue-eyed shiksa girlfriend in tow. If that isn’t enough to give Daphna, his Super Jewish cousin, enough ammunition to fight Liam, he’s also taken possession of a chai, the religious medallion, that once belonged to their Grandpa and which Daphna planned to make her own.
Joshua Harmon’s scintillating one-act comedy, which had its New York premier at the Roundabout Theatre in 2012, is a scalding look at changing religious identity in the 21st century. It pits two family members whose divergent attitudes toward their reverence is the crux of this play. With Daphna on the attack, aiming high at her cousin Liam and low at his innocent young girlfriend, no one and nothing is safe. Harmon’s characters are strongly opinionated and unrelenting in their hostility toward each other. He writes dialogue that’s thick with hatefulness and contempt, dripping in vitriol and venom. It’s like“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” written for two 20-somethings. Daphna and Liam rip and tear at each other like two Hebrew Velociraptors, leaving Melody and Jonah to act as referees and peace mediators. The acerbic verbiage builds to a frenzied climax in which there are no winners, prompting Jonah to warn Daphna to “just leave it…okay? Leave it.”
Jeremy Wechsler has directed this play with the fervor of a prize fight. Theatergoers can almost hear the bell between the rounds, as each boxer returns to his respective corner in preparation for the next bout. Within Adam Veness’ stunningly beautiful, meticulously detailed setting (crown molding, tasteful backsplash, stainless appliances, even a smoke detector!) Wechsler has orchestrated his actors to dance and spar around, between and over the top of the furniture, now and then disappearing into the bathroom to catch a breath. Janice Pytel’s costumes are perfect, from Jonah’s nerdy boxer shorts and black socks to Melody’s pretty-in-pink princess attire. And Barbara Charlene has done herself proud with some nasty fight choreography.
Laura Lapidus, 2/3 body, 1/3 hair, is magnificent as Daphna. Impressive, if only for the sheer amount of dialogue this actress has memorized and mastered, the dynamic Ms. Lapidus wields the unstoppable power of a verbal gatling gun. She goes in for the attack with absolute assurance, blasting away nonstop with scornful, searing words, finally making her kill with a mad man’s grin stretched across her face. Whenever audiences remember this production, it’s Ms. Lapidus they’ll recall…and they’ll shiver with fear.
Ian Paul Custer, who’s impressed audiences in recent years in so many plays and musicals, is possibly the only actor who could hold his own quite this well with Ms. Lapidus. Mr. Custer plays Liam with guts, gusto and grit. He brings a driving, maniacal focus and determination to his portrayal and his attack and parry, every time Ms. Lapidus feints, leaves the audience breathless. The boundless energy this artist brings to his role, not to mention his honest relationship with each of his cast mates, is astounding.
Erica Bittner is delightful as Melody. Surprisingly astute, although often a few steps behind the others, Ms. Bittner finds her ground and grabs hold when the need arises. Her scenes with Ms. Lapidus and Mr. Custer are sincere and bring a humane quality to this play that often seems missing. Cory Kahane, is Liam’s younger brother, Jonah. He has the most stage time yet the fewest lines; his presence, however, is always felt. As the quiet, reserve, perhaps even intimidated member of this family, Jonah is the one character finally able to put a stop to Daphna’s histrionics. And for that, playgoers are eternally grateful.
Jeremy Wechsler’s production of Joshua Harmon’s savage new comedy is a ferocious theatrical experience. Performed by an exciting quartet of terrific young actors, this play is sure to become the talk of this town. Harmon’s play taps into some deeply disturbing areas and ultimately raises the question, Who IS the bad Jew here? Is it Liam, for his lax religious views, or is it Daphna, for her holier than thou attitude? Both characters are at the forefront of this 100-minute war and never at a loss for words. But is the Bad Jew actually Jonah for his inability to assert his position, either in defending his brother or putting his cousin in her place? Or perhaps Harmon is indicting all three of them in a comedy that lays bare all the anger, jealousy and bad manners that can only be found among family.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 24-June 7 by Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Box Office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.TheaterWit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.