Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, the best-selling play in Studio Theatre’s history, makes a welcome return less than a year later. Often described as a savage comedy, this remounted production manages to be even more savage and more comedic than Studio’s acclaimed original staging (which is no small feat).
Bad Jews is set in a Manhattan Upper West Side studio apartment where four people face an uncomfortable night together following the funeral of the grandfather of three Jewish twenty-somethings (brothers Liam and Jonah and cousin Daphna). The fourth character is Liam’s kind and sincere WASP girlfriend Melody.
When the play opens Daphna is trying to persuade Jonah to take her side in seeking inheritance of a piece of jewelry that their grandfather managed to keep hidden even while incarcerated in a Nazi prison camp during the Holocaust.
Daphna (Laura Lapidus) is the “good Jew”of the play. She has wrapped up her entire identity in Jewish culture (and hebraicized her name from Diana). She can’t wait to head to Israel after her upcoming graduation from Vassar to be with her Israeli soldier boyfriend and engage in rabbinical studies. She believes that her strong affinity for all things Jewish makes her the logical recipient of the family keepsake.
To describe Daphna as aggressive and overbearing would be an understatement. In contrast, the more passive and non-confrontational Jonah (Rowan Vickers) merely wishes to be left out of the dispute.
The action heats up when Liam (Noah Averbach-Katz) arrives. Daphna has many grievances against Liam. He missed the grandfather’s funeral after losing his cell phone while skiing in Aspen and that he brought his blonde shiksa girlfriend with him to this family event. Other more historical grievances include financial envy and the fact that she considers Liam (originally born as Shlomo) a self-loathing Jew who does not value their heritage.
Liam finds Daphna smug, self-righteous, and overly pious. He feels no responsibility to marry in the Jewish faith and continue Jewish culture and traditions. He admits he is a “bad Jew.”
The two square off in a bitter battle over not only the family heirloom, but broader issues of religious faith, cultural assimilation, and even the validity of each other’s romances. The battle is witty, funny, and vicious due to the fact that both Daphna and Liam are more alike that they would admit. Both are smart and unyielding in their certitude, and both are willing to fight dirty in ways that horrify poor Melody (Maggie Wilder) even as she and Jonah are targets of collateral damage.
The original Studio Theatre production of Bad Jews was justly praised as one of the best comedies of the year by the critics, including Ryan Taylor in his DC Theatre Scene review. He lauded the play both for being “gut-bustingly” funny and also for taking on big issues in a rich and thoughtful manner.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The same goes for theatre productions and reviewers.
So what’s different now? While it has the same outstanding artistic team, three of the four cast members are new. Only the sweetly wonderful Maggie Wilder (credited as Maggie Erwin in the prior production) returns.
In the original Studio Theatre production, the portrayal of Daphna by Irene Sofia Lucio was talented and memorable, but a little more extreme. The disputes between her and Alex Mandell’s Liam came off as a little more intellectual in nature.
December 3 – January 3, 2015
1501 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $81
Details and Tickets
The arguments between Laura Lapidus (who previously played Daphna in a Chicago production) and Noah Averbach-Katz’s Liam are more visceral this time around. The two portrayals felt more real. Lapidus gives Daphna a self-satisfied charm while also making her longing for the heirloom more convincing. Averbach-Katz makes his character well-rounded and sincere in his affection for Melody, in spite of her simplicity and her hilariously awful singing voice.
These portrayals made the play seem less stacked against Daphna. Whether this slight change in emphasis came more from the new cast, a fine-tuning by its talented director Serge Seiden, or a combination of both, it elevated the impact of the play even for this reviewer who already knew where the story was headed.
Once again, Studio Theatre puts on an outstanding production. All four actors give strong performances that emphasize both the strengths and the insecurities of their well-defined characters. The pacing and the direction mostly stay in overdrive to serve the strong comic action, but also achieve a touching sensitivity at the conclusion.
Occasionally the syrupy sweetness of the holiday season calls out for some rancorous delight as an antidote. If you didn’t see the original run of Bad Jews at Studio Theatre, don’t miss this one from Joshua Harmon, one of the most exciting young playwrights around. Even those who saw the original production might be surprised to find how well the humor of Bad Jews holds up and what a powerful emotional and intellectual feast it offers.
Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon . Directed by Serge Seiden . Featuring Laura Lapidus, Rowan Vickers, Noah Averbach-Katz, and Maggie Wilder . Set design: Luciana Stecconi. Costume design: Kelsey Hunt . Lighting design: Daniel MacLean Wagner . Sound design: Palmer Hefferan . Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hanse l. Casting director: Jack Doulin . Production stage manager: John Keith Hall . Assistant Stage Manager: Lena Salins . Production manager: Josh Escajeda . Technical director: Rob Shearin . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.