“Bad Jews” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

The Bad Jews of Bad Jews may be bad Jews, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad company.

Let me revise that. If you found yourself trapped in a room with any of these people in real life – including the one person who can’t be a bad Jew because she isn’t a Jew at all – you would most likely find yourself, depending on your temperament, either racing out the door, screaming and tearing your hair, or desperately looking for a weapon.

However, since these are not real people, but rather characters who prove the maxim that sinners are generally more entertaining than saints, it’s okay: these bad Jews (and one bad Christian) are fun to be with for ninety or so minutes.

Not that these folks are really sinners. They’re just… strange. We first meet Jonah Haber (Austin Rogers) in his New York studio apartment – set designer David Offner has created a delightfully messy example of exactly what a college sophomore whose family has money, and thus is accustomed to a housekeeper, would live in… without a housekeeper. Jonah’s playing video games on his laptop, sitting on the fold-out couch which serves as a bed, wearing a long-sleeved shirt, boxer shorts, and black socks. Definitely not an attractive outfit.

Jeanette Deutsch and Austin Rogers. Photo: Enci Box

Which is pointed out almost immediately by his acerbic cousin Daphna Feygenbaum (Jeanette Deutsch) when she emerges from the bathroom. Daphna is staying (on an inflatable mattress) in the studio, which was bought by Jonah’s parents. The family apartment is in the same building, but Mom turned Jonah’s older brother’s room into an office, which left only Jonah’s room if there were guests, so Mom and Dad bought the studio so the boys would have a place to stay if the guest room was taken. Which it is, at the moment, by Daphna’s less-affluent parents, who have come to town for the funeral of the family patriarch, a Holocaust survivor who was apparently beloved by all.

The funeral was earlier that day, and, as the family prepares to sit shiva, Daphna and Jonah argue about who wasn’t at the service: Jonah’s older brother Liam (Noah James), who has earned Daphna’s contempt by losing his phone on a ski-lift in Aspen, and thus didn’t know about grandpa’s death and funeral until it was too late to get back in time. Daphna’s not buying the “I lost my phone, what could I do?” excuse, since Liam was in Aspen with his girlfriend Melody (Lila Hood), and why couldn’t he have used her phone to check in with the family, since everyone knew Poppy was dying?!?

Underlying Daphna’s fury is her desire – a better word might be determination – to possess Poppy’s chai, a gold ornament spelling out “life” in Hebrew. In the concentration camp, Poppy kept it under his tongue so the Nazis wouldn’t find and confiscate it, and after the war, too poor to buy a ring, he proposed to the kids’ grandmother by offering it to her instead. To Daphna, it’s not only a family treasure, but also a symbol of Jewish ingenuity and perseverance in the face of horror – and it’s all she claims to want from the estate.

The chai is particularly important to Daphna because she believes she’s the only member of her generation of the family to truly embrace a Jewish identity: she plans to move to Israel, where she recently found a boyfriend, and be the epitome of a good Jew.

Noah James and Lila Hood. Photo: Enci Box

The problem is that when Liam and Melody finally arrive from Aspen, Liam already has the chai – his mother sent it to him, because Poppy (according to Liam) wanted him to have it – and is planning to bestow it, as his grandfather did, on the woman he loves. Who happens not to be Jewish. Oy.

What follows is a free-for-all of allegations, accusations, imprecations, and lots of good old-fashioned yelling. Daphna – whom Liam likes to point out was actually named “Diana” at birth – excoriates her bad Jew cousin for insensitivity, pretension, and betrayal of his heritage: he’s earning his doctorate in Japanese culture, but what about the culture of his own people? Liam – whose Hebrew name is “Shlomo,” as Daphna gleefully reminds him – responds defensively, but with barely concealed scorn for what he considers her solemn and overly-pious attitude. These two pick at each other like scabs; or, perhaps more accurately, they slam into each other like flint striking steel, producing sparks which will eventually, inevitably, ignite tinder if it’s available.

L-R: Lila Hood, Jeanette Deutsch, Austin Rogers. Photo: Enci Box

And it is available, in the person of Melody. Sweet, simple, with perfectly straight blonde hair and a Pepsodent smile, Melody is the Ur-WASP: when Daphna asks where her “people” come from, Melody responds “Delaware.” And when Daphna goads her into singing – Melody studied opera in college – the woefully undertalented singer warbles the whitest version of the Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime” ever heard.

So when Liam proposes to Melody, offering Poppy’s chai and draping it around his beloved’s neck, it’s a combustible moment, and the seething Daphna erupts in violence at once vicious and hilarious.

L-R: Lila Hood, Austin Rogers, Jeanette Deutsch, Noah James. Photo: Enci Box

The cast, under Dana Resnick’s direction, is very good throughout. Ms Deutsch deftly switches from hints of inferiority in the presence of her richer cousins to defiant, strident confidence in the righteousness of her religious convictions. Mr. Rogers, in an underwritten role, nevertheless conveys the essential decency of a young man whose beliefs and feelings are still in flux. Ms Hood manages to be both funny and touching, as the shiksa fish out of water, trying to keep the peace in a family where rage seems to be the controlling emotion.

Austin Rogers (L) and Noah James. Photo: Enci Box

But it’s Mr. James who stands out, delivering a performance so filled with kinetic energy – even when he’s standing still – that occasionally one fears he’ll explode in a burst of apoplexy. He imbues his central monologue with so many colors, muted detonations, and outright comic blasts, that it becomes a guffaw-inducing tour de force.

Vicki Conrad’s costumes, Tom Ash’s lighting, and the aforementioned set by David Offner are all exactly what’s needed, as is Ms Resnick’s direction.

If I have one quibble, it’s the peculiar last moment of the play, when – out of nowhere, and with no setup – we’re treated to a revelation we never saw coming. It’s bizarre, and in my opinion unearned.

That notwithstanding, at the Odyssey this spring, Bad Jews make good company.

Bad Jews
Written by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Dana Resnick

Through June 17

Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 310-477-2055 ext. 2 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com


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