With a title as juicy as Bad Jews, a writer better be able to back up the bravado with some some serious skill. Luckily for DC audiences, Joshua Harmon is a young writer of uncommon emotional insight, rhetorical skill and giant brass balls. His skill in nomenclature being the least of his considerable talents, Harmon has crafted the funniest American comedy of bad manners I’ve had the pleasure of falling in love with in a good few years.
I haven’t walked out of a DC theater this enthused and riled up since Woolly’s Mr. Burns, which is high praise in my estimation. Is Bad Jews perfect? Nah. Perfection is boring. Give me the kind of beautifully flawed characters and passionate debate currently burning up Studio’s Mead stage anytime. Four great actors are directed through 90 minutes of detailed, deranged business by Serge Seiden. It’s thrilling stuff that barely ever pauses to catch its breath.
Generally thin on plot but huge on incident, Bad Jews concerns the forced overnight confinement of three members of a Jewish Manhattan-raised family in town for the funeral and Shiva of their grandfather, a family patriarch. As the night begins, (seemingly) passive young Jonah (Joe Paulik) is being recruited by his cousin Daphna (Irene Sofia Lucio), to back up her claim of ownership of a storied family heirloom of great spiritual, cultural and personal significance.
Daphna is Harmon’s wildest creation. Recently returned from a life-changing tour of Israel, she’s filled to the brim with the self-righteous fervor of the only recently enlightened. About to graduate from college and primed to join the Israeli army, Daphna is blessed with a keen intellect. Daphna’s greatest weapon is a vicious rhetorical skill that she uses as a bludgeon against slights real and perceived. So overwhelming is her need for moral superiority that she will readily invoke the holocaust in an argument over tattoos. Lucio brings her passion, conviction and obsessive compulsion to vivid, shaking life.
Enter Jonah’s older brother Liam (Alex Mandell) who has his own claim on the heirloom. Liam’s the more secular relation and Daphna’s intellectual equal whose weapon is his incessant reasonableness. As committed to his lack of vocation as Daphna is to her faith, Liam uses logic and open-mindedness like a switchblade, first cutting an argument down to size before starting to carving into his target’s very nature, revealing a viciousness surprising to his loved ones.
And I don’t just mean his family. Along for this joyride is Liam’s girlfriend Melody (Maggie Erwin), a super-Wasp that is in Daphna’s judgmental crosshairs as soon as she crosses the threshold. A student of opera with a 9 to 5 in administration, Melody is possessed of the naïve, genial morality of the comfortably (and perhaps unknowingly) privileged. A lesser play would make that naïveté Melody’s central characteristic, but Harmon and Erwin imbue her with a surprisingly steely spine and an empathetic streak the others largely lack.
The central conflict of Bad Jews, one it’s two cultural warriors are ready to the go the mat for, quite literally, is whether Judaism is primarily a religion or a culture. It’s a centuries old, perhaps impossible question that, of course, the play has no real answer for. But what it lacks in concrete answers it makes up for in passion and rhetorical flair. The highlights of the night are two dueling monologues for Liam and Daphna the likes of which actors go whole careers without having the chance to gnaw into and Mandell and Lucio are clearly having a blast as they proceed to knock them out of the rhetorical park. Erwin too gets a chance to shine, showing an incredible level of commitment and skill in one key scene that establishes her as one of DC’s brightest young stars.
Closes January 18, 2015
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $44 – $88
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Only Paulik’s Jonah seems relatively underdeveloped here. But it’s less the fault of Paulik, who brings an admirable vulnerability to a role that by it’s nature is less sexy than the riotous warring cousins. His plaintive cries to be left out of the conflict ring increasingly hollow as what initially may seem as pacifism starts to seem like a cop-out from taking moral responsibility. Paulik’s also wonderfully subtle during a climactic reveal.
I’ve seen no set this year that tops Luciana Stecconi’s hyper-realistic studio apartment. It’s a wonder what Stecconi can accomplish with little more than a sleeper sofa and a couple of inflated air mattresses. The beds themselves become valued prizes in this verbal war, their varied size and relative comfortableness conferring status, power and territory. The increasingly cramped sleeping situation becomes a labyrinth forcing the evening’s combatants, and their witnesses, into increasingly tight paths until they’re almost crawling over each other in efforts to escape an awkward moment or pounce on a perceived weakness. It’s an awesome example of using the space to heighten the tension are create unique and constantly shifting areas to play.
Have I mentioned that the play is funny? It is. Gut-bustingly so. Erwin’s key moment especially had me laughing so hard it hurt. No, really. But it’s not empty comedy. It’s rich, and thoughtful and wonderfully challenging and so in love with big questions. But, in the spirit of Harmon’s remarkable play, don’t take my word for it. Buy a ticket, prepare a questioning mind and investigate for yourself.
Disclosure: I am a former employee and student of Studio Theatre. It did not affect this review.
Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon . directed by Serge Seiden . Featuring Irene Sofia Lucio, Alex Mandell, Joe Paulik, and Maggie Erwin . Set Design: Luciana Stecconi . Lighting Design: Daniel MacLean Wagner . Costume Design: Kelsey Hunt . • Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan . Dramaturg Adrien-Alice Hansel . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.