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10/4/13

Bad Jews and a Whole Bunch of Crazy Hilarious Times


I'll be straight (Haha!) with you…I wasn't so quick on the trigger to jump back into the theater scene post-The Glass Menagerie. Not that there isn't a bevy of other shows (and a Ryan Scott Oliver concert or three) I am looking forward to seeing, but compared to the extraordinary experience that is The Glass Menagerie, all the other upcoming productions have one MAJOR tour-de-force to measure up to.

Oh, me of little faith. Congrats Bad Jews…you are worlds apart from Menagerie in every regard, so much so, a comparison is very silly. But you succeed in your own ways and I can't stop thinking about you.

Bad Jews, a new play running at the Laura Pels theater, is a remarkable feat from writer Joshua Harmon. This Jewish romp - about Daphna and Liam, two cousins feuding over who will be the recipient of their dead grandfather's treasured chai - is an all-out war of complex characters and verbal bitch-cutting for the ages.

The show works both ways: as a funny show with some interesting insight or as an interesting show with funny lines. And however you like your theater, the concept doesn't work just because the characters are recognizable, but moreso because the entirety of the story is accessible. Daphna and Liam's clashing isn't just about a family heirloom - it is a placeholder for their competing ideas on religion and social theory (and relationships and the past and wealth and...just about everything). The chai is just the macguffin and sometimes, that or similar esoteric things are needed to instigate a dialogue between people whom don't communicate a lot or don't communicate how they truly feel.

It is to Harmon's credit that I didn't align myself too hard on either side, Team Daphna or Team Liam. She sees the chai as a preservation of Jewish culture and heritage, something diminishing with each passing decade. He has his own perspective on the chai - including what he plans to do with it - that are not based on religious reasons (if at all). The overall writing is strong enough, but the…what, order of the scenes, if that is the right phrasing, takes the show where it needs to go. One minute, I find myself agreeing with Daphna's stance…and the next, Liam's. There is nothing more delightful then watching two likable, if morally reprehensible, characters trying to outwit each other. Not because they are smart, but because they are equally matched, flaws and all.

You're welcome to take a side (I took Liam's by a narrow margin when the dust settled), but you don't have to in order to sit back, relax and enjoy. Had Harmon unintentional favored either character's moral paradigm, the show wouldn't have been as intriguing or land the punches that it did. No one - ESPECIALLY not a New York audience - wants to be told a one-sided account and by extension, what he/she should believe. Leave it up to them to decide; they can wait...

Amidst all of the verbal sparring comedy, the social commentary is subtle and beautifully done. I would have been more then happy to take a 100-minute dark comedy laugh fest, but by the end (oh WOW, those last few seconds), the show got even more nuanced. By that I mean, it got even better...and it didn't even need to!

And this cast. THIS CAST. Stunning work all-around by this four-person ensemble (so I guess that is one parallel with The Glass Menagerie!). Tracee Chimo, playing Daphna, runs the gamut between the crazy, fiery bitch and well-spoken, intellectual. Her character should have been insufferable - actually, there were a few moments when she was - but throw me a strong-willed, witty bitch and I will love her like the diva snowflake she is. And oh, I did LUV HUH. Chimo will have you rolling in the aisles with her pitch-perfect line-delivery. Michael Zegan, playing Liam, squares off against her and I loved his portrayal for the same reasons I loved hers - a smart, self-involved bitch (this time, with a penis!) that is resilient in the face of opposition. By the time the show was done, I was surprised there was any scenery left after Chimo and Zegan devoured most of it.

Not to be overshadowed, Philip Ettinger and Molly Ranson are also wonderful in more supporting-esque roles. The former commands quite a presence as Jonah, all observation with his facial ticks and body language doing the talking (and making you laugh in the process). And Ranson - bereft of her Carrie White maxi skirt - looks unrecognizable (and beautiful, might I add) as Melody, Liam's out-of-her-element girlfriend having to put up with this bonkers family. To Ranson's credit, she got my personal favorite moment of the show - her character, whom studied opera singing in school, belts out a Porgy and Bess number. If the image of this terminally white girl in Ugg boots singing a Porgy and Bess number isn't hilarious enough, wait until the song starts. So hard I was laughing, I couldn't hear any of the lyrics…and the song (it was "Summertime," if memory serves me right) just went on and on and on and my uproarious guffawing only ascended in volume. But I mean, like, all of my favorite campy and ridiculous things coincided for this one moment of maximum hilarity. Applause. More applause. And even more applause.

This show is the real deal and a pleasant surprise in the ledger of Fall offerings. And Charles Isherwood agrees with me and gave Bad Jews the illustrious Critics Pick honor. As it should. The Glass Menagerie is still engraved in my skull so many weeks after seeing it because it was mind-blowing and euphoric. Well, I opine that Bad Jews is no less memorable and I want to see it again because it was deliciously entertaining. Both shows achieve something special on stage - an enthralling experience, as it were. And with Bad Jews, its off-Broadway status and non-marquee writer and cast are far more accomplished than I initially anticipated.


Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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