'Bad Jews': Theater Review

Michael Lamont
Molly Ephraim, Rajiv Ullman, Lili Fuller and Ari Brand in 'Bad Jews'
A family fight of biblical proportions that brims with bile and belly laughs.

Joshua Harmon's hit off-Broadway comedy stars Molly Ephraim of 'Last Man Standing' in its West Coast premiere.

Following its successful 2012 debut at New York's Roundabout Theatre Company and a recent hit London run, Bad Jews now reaches the Geffen Playhouse, bringing playwright Joshua Harmon's unique combination of ill will, belly laughs and the savage hilarity of interfamilial vitriol. The play's Los Angeles bow coincides with the warmly received New York premiere of Harmon's latest work, Significant Other.

The title here refers to Liam Haber (Ari Brand), a secular Jew with a gentile girlfriend named Melody (Lili Fuller), and his cousin Daphna Feygenbaum (Molly Ephraim), an uber-Jew underclassman at Vassar whose fantasies include Rabbinical studies and a boyfriend in the Israeli army. Coming between them is the issue of an heirloom belonging to their recently deceased grandfather. While that may make this sound like an ethnic comedy, it isn’t. Conflicts of modernity and tradition function within any cultural framework, and with its canny humor and vibrant characterizations, Bad Jews offers a radioactive brew of neuroses and glee for audiences of all stripes. 

Poor Jonah Haber (Raviv Ullman). Sure, he’s lucky enough to have an Upper West Side studio apartment with a view of the Hudson River from his bathroom. But currently he has to share it with his cousin Daphna, who’s in town on account of their grandfather’s recent passing. Conspicuously absent is Jonah’s older brother, Liam, who dropped his cell phone off a chair lift while snowboarding in Aspen and was incommunicado. He and Melody missed the funeral, but will arrive in time to sit shiva.

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Daphna wears her religion as though she personally were chosen by the hand of God, judging unworthy anyone who won’t at least aspire to her rigorous standard of devotion. Jonah would rather play video games, trying to ignore the words that come spewing out of her like a plague.

Known to most audiences as Tim Allen’s entitled daughter Mandy on the sitcom Last Man Standing, Ephraim admirably handles a difficult role, playing a termagant who treads a fine line between amusing and intolerable. A character as grating as Daphna could have audiences running for the exits at intermission, which may be why there is no intermission in this 90-minute comedic sprint. At the heart of matters is a "chai," a Hebrew symbol meaning "living," which their deceased grandfather hid under his tongue while a Nazi prisoner. As the most devout grandchild, Daphna believes she is entitled to it. But Liam thinks otherwise.

A graduate student of ethnic studies with a focus on the Far East, his secular ways grate on Daphna about as much as his propensity for dating outside his race. When Daphna and Liam go head to head, Ephraim has the bulk of the play’s lines, including plenty of scabrous laughs, as when she queries Melody about her origins. “We’ve always been in Delaware,” Melody tells her. “No you haven’t,” responds Daphna, then proceeds to chronicle the slaughter of indigenous people in the region by European immigrants similar to Melody's forefathers, finishing with, “Where did your family come from before they moved to Delaware to commit genocide?”

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Daphna is a stormy ocean for any actor to navigate, and Ephraim nails the role with a combination of grit and grace, though without a New York accent. In fact, none of them have accents, which may or may not be a hiccup in Matt Shakman’s energetic staging. Amid a torrent of words, most of them poisonous, the director strikes precisely the right tone, drawing the audience in with material, which, if handled incorrectly, could be repellent. The dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed, with the mostly static Melody and Jonah providing ballast to Daphna and Liam’s frenetic tearing at one another in scenic designer John Arnone’s authentically high-end, low-value studio apartment.

As Liam, Brand gets so wound up he could undoubtedly use a triple martini after every performance just to wind back down. Step by step his character matches Daphna in knowledge and reason, just as Brand matches Ephraim in energy. Yet while hers is drawn from self-righteousness, his stems from aggravation, giving each their own brand of hostility.

While the role of Melody remains somewhat underbaked, Fuller portrays her with a ditzy, though sweet and forgiving demeanor. Her excruciating rendition of “Summertime” gets laughs, even though it’s as contrived as the windup, in which she and Liam leave for the hospital. But these are minor bumps in an otherwise sharp and amusing play. And while the family fight is an age-old dramatic construct, Harmon understands that by making it ethnically specific, he gives Bad Jews universal appeal.

Cast: Raviv Ullman, Molly Ephraim, Ari Brand, Lili Fuller
Director: Matt Shakman
Playwright: Joshua Harmon
Set designer: John Arnone
Costume designer: E. B. Brooks
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Sound designer: John Arnone
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse

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