Bad Jews Review. The Unmarvelous Mr. Maisel?

Play-PerView has done a mitzvah for those of us who missed this savage comedy about bickering college-age cousins when it was first produced Off-Broadway; “Bad Jews” was the first New York play by Joshua Harmon, then not yet 30, who in the decade since has gone on to write “Significant Other” (which transferred to Broadway for a brief run), “Admissions,” and “Skintight.

What’s best about this new virtual production of “Bad Jews,” which is available on demand through May 19, is that three of the four cast members are from the original production, as is Daniel Aukin, who is Harmon’s go-to director. Together they create an entertainment that’s too enjoyable to deserve the stigma that comes with being labeled a Zoom reading, although that is what it is. Indeed, in one way at least, Zoom makes it better.

Tracee Chimo stands out as the fierce and frizzy-haired  Daphna Feygenbaum, who has been staying at the Upper West Side studio apartment of her cousins, in order to attend the funeral of their grandfather,  whom they called Poppy.  In the opening scene, it is the night after Poppy’s funeral, she and cousin Jonah (Phillip Ettinger) are preparing for bed, and Daphna is a scorching blowtorch of harsh judgments – about Jonah’s attire, about Jonah’s mother being a do-nothing rich lady who only pretends to work as a consultant, about his parents buying this expensive apartment for him; but she especially breathes fire about Liam, Jonah’s older brother,  because he missed Poppy’s funeral. Liam had lost his phone while on a skiing trip in Aspen with his girlfriend Melody, and so was unaware that Poppy had died. 

“The idea that Liam just like flies off to Aspen with Melody and his like $1200 snowboard when his grandfather is dying and drops his phone off a ski lift which is in and of itself a beautiful metaphor for what money means to him….,” Daphna says, a snippet of her breathless invective, which Chimo manages to render both credible and comic.

It soon becomes apparent that Daphna’s hostility toward Liam is deep-seated, and largely due to his indifference about being a Jew. Daphna by contrast has embraced her Judaism with a vengeance, changing her name from Diana, embarking on “rabbinical coursework,” boasting of having an Israeli boyfriend and planning to move to Israel and join the army as soon as she graduates. Daphna seems most outraged at the memory of a past Passover, when Liam violated the culinary restrictions of the holiday by popping a cookie in his mouth, saying “I’m a bad Jew.”

When Liam (Michael Zegen ) arrives at the apartment with Melody (Justine Lupe),  it’s immediately clear the feelings are mutual, Liam launching into his own breathless rant against Daphna. Their animosity eventually focuses on a fight over Poppy’s Chai necklace; the playwright is both clever and ultimately poignant in establishing the profound meaning this religious object holds for each member of the family.

In “Bad Jews,” as in all his plays except “Significant Other,” Harmon can be unkind to his characters, no less harsh than Daphna in pointing to their flaws for our judgment. If this indicates a talent that has room to mature,  Harmon compensates with a comic gift that winds up being generous to the actors playing those characters. Chimo and Zegen have the flashier roles, and make the most of them. (Could this role have led Zegen to snag a subsequent Jewish role that has made him famous — Joel Maisel in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”?)  But the roles of the younger brother and the gentile girlfriend, both thrust into the middle of an awkward situation, have great potential for (a quieter) comic gold, and both Ettinger and Lupe mine it to perfection. Given the contribution to the comedy of their reactions, the close ups that the Zoom platform enables may actually be an improvement over an in-person staging.

So, as Daphna might write: תודה זום*

*Thank you, Zoom

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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