The overbearing, dominant, kvetchy Jewish woman is alive and well in Joshua Harmon’s comedy, Bad Jews, playing at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio until November 30.
Directed by David Stradley, the play is set in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, immediately following the funeral of the characters’ poppy. We meet Jonah and Liam Haber, their cousin Daphna, and Liam’s stereotypically-blonde girlfriend Melody as they engage in a family squabble about who is to inherit their grandfather’s necklace.
Although Sofie Yavorsky gives an energetic performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, a Vassar student who is grieving the loss of her grandfather, the play relies on caricatures, not characters. Listening to Daphna yell at her cousin Liam, who brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody, that he is not a real Jew and that he can go ahead and “f*** an ethnic free bush,” did not pack the punch that was presumably intended in this kind of dialogue.
Listening to Liam accuse Daphna of being a purist, even a “Nazi,” who is interested in preserving the integrity of Jewish blood line, when she argues he should not marry a shiksa, sounded like a familiar, schematic and wooden rendition of the old particular-universalist, ethnic-assimilationist debate. We have heard these debates before, and this particular tale of family inheritance, grief and familiar strife adds nothing new to the story in its language.
What does it mean to be a Jew is a perennial question that “Bad Jews” attempts to answer, but is far too in enamored by its easy “shocking” repartee to even being to engage this question in a complex, serious way. A particularly low point is when Melody, an opera major in college, sings an embarrassing version of “Summertime” for Daphna, to cheer her up. It is a cheap moment that goes for an easy laugh that feels out of place in the play.
Harmon’s writing has neither the comic timing and wit of Neil Simon, nor the intellectual weight of Tom Stoppard. The highlight of the show is perhaps Liam’s use of “Holocaust” as a verb: “Don’t Holocaust me” he warns Daphna.
Other than that, the play has little original writing, little story, and a lot of yelling by a clearly hysterical Jewish woman who is mean, vindictive, and self-righteous. If such misogynistic stereotypes of women pass as “brave comedy with tragically high stakes” (The Financial Times), then something is seriously wrong with theater reviewers.
Bad Jews had its world premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Roundabout Underground in the fall of 2012 and was nominated for three Outer Circle Awards. Sitting through the 90 minute (no intermission) family brawl among young cousins made me long for a good 25-minute episode of Larry David’s creative, quirky, whimsical sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”