Tracee Chimo’s performance as “Diana” in Bad Jews is not going to make any new friends. Her work in this acerbic new play by Joshua Harmon is masterful and brave as she tears at the throats of her antagonists.
Diana (who prefers her Hebrew name “Daphna”) is cousin to brothers Jonah and Liam, and she is spending the night in the studio apartment the young men have received from their parents. It’s a small space, and mattresses are strewn about the floor making access to the kitchenette and bathroom only by jumping across them.
The occasion is the day of their grandfather’s funeral and at rise Diana and Jonah are in a heated discussion of Grandfather Poppy’s will. Diana is not concerned with financial gain, but she is determined to have the “chai” (a small golden token that represents life) that the old gent wore around his neck. He’d hidden it from the Nazis during the Holocaust by hiding it beneath his tongue and Diana, firmly rooted in her Jewish heritage, is upset that she’s not been told it would be hers to keep. When her cousin Liam arrives, too late for the funeral (he had been skiing and lost his cell phone on the slopes) he brings his young girl friend Melody with him.
In the course of the 100 minute play we learn he has already been given the “chai”, and that he plans to offer it to Melody when he proposes marriage to her. Eventually he does just that, and it brings to a head the growing hostility between him and his cousin Diana. Their confrontations form the spine of the play, and they are as ferocious as anything this side of Strindberg.
With lacerating wit and an uncanny ear for the colloquial rhythms and jargon of contemporary speech, Harmon here creates four vivid characters, each with different values and viewpoints, bound only by blood and romance. Jonah, for example, the younger of the brothers, wants only to be left out of the battle between his relatives. Though Jonah has the fewest lines of the quartet stuck in this one room, Phillip Ettinger brings him vividly to life, earning some of the best laughs as he dodges about the apartment in an attempt to remain uninvolved. Molly Ranson most appealingly makes the sweet and simple Melody a girl of charm and sensible character. Hers is the voice of reason and it remains so until she is provoked and then she proves another worthy adversary in this family imbroglio.
Michael Zegen is older brother Liam, determined to keep the “chai” and in fact he does offer it to his inamorata, who is honored and thrilled to have it. His contained rage, his long held hatred of his cousin Diana, are beautifully expressed by Zegen, as he tries desperately, without much success, to control himself. His litany of flaws which he lashes out at Diana is vivid enough to draw blood (figuratively) and to inspire a rebuttal that is equally woundingly wild. The arguments put forth by all the principals are written with accuracy and acted with fervor by the cast of four.
Under Daniel Aukin’s skillful direction, the production has been brought to a larger stage after a successful launch in the Roundabout Theatre’s small Black Box theatre last season. It pulls no punches, and its zealous and unflinching characters may turn some audiences off; these are not relatives you’d want to be stuck with on a long cruise or in any confined quarters. But it’s a powerful exploration of what it means to Diana to be a Jew, with viewpoints other than her own deftly thrown back at her throughout the harrowing tale as it spins its 100 uninterrupted minutes on the stage.
Roundabout Theatre’s production of Bad Jews is onstage thru December 29, 2013 at the The Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.