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'Bad Jews' doesn’t sound funny, but it is

You could certainly argue the case that “Bad Jews,” by the lauded young playwright, Joshua Harmon – currently one of the most performed plays in America and internationally – is, or perceived to be, offensive. Saul Golubcow, writing in Washington Jewish Week, suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that maybe “Jews Behaving Badly” or “Not So Good” or even “Could Be Better” would be infinitely more acceptable.

As Diana – call me Daphna – Feygenbaum, would probably, maddeningly, say: “Whatever.”

Both the play and the playwright won a passel of awards in 2014 for “Bad Jews,” a savagely funny story of three young Jewish cousins from Manhattan just now in mourning because of the recent death of their grandfather, Poppy, a revered survivor of the Holocaust.

The trio has been joined by Liam’s shiksa girlfriend, Melody – a sweet, delicate WASP from Chicago – and when sparks begin to fly about who should get Poppy’s necklace, a bit of bling called chai, symbolically etched “life,” saved from his concentration camp years, the apartment they are sharing for the funeral is suddenly way too small. There is no place to hide from verbal assaults, he-said and she-said tirades and vicious accusations. Ah, family: They love, hate, break to recollect, resume the feud.

It’s complicated. Daphna loves everything Jewish and she’s in everybody’s face about who is a “bad Jew” concerning faith, loyalty to rituals and tradition. Liam, in Daphna’s opinion, is in the “bad” column. He has a mistrust of any organized religion and worse, he didn’t even show for Poppy’s funeral because he was skiing with Melody in Colorado. “On the bunny hill,” spits Daphna. Liam’s penchant for Bambi-esque girlfriends is a topic. Daphna, viperine, is an equal opportunity basher. She’s relentless and, a “good Jew.”

It doesn’t sound funny, but it is. Liam’s description of Daphna during a meltdown is priceless: “I know that she wishes she were this, like, barbed-wire hopping, Uzi-toting Israeli warlock superhero.”

The play is often cruel and corrosive. Daphna is the chief purveyor of nastiness but cousin Liam is no slouch. There is lots of gallows humor, up to a stunning finish to the tale.

Director Steve Vaughn makes “Bad Jews” work in the intimate confines of the Jewish Repertory Theatre, inside the Jewish Community Center. The pace is perfect – even in brief moments of silence – Vaughn’s sense of the importance placed on the events unfolding in the lives of these young people here is knowing and wise.

A superb cast of young Western New York talent is on display: Arin Lee Dandes is sensational as Daphna, despicable and immeasurably messed up. The Theatre of Youth actress has graduated. Adam Rath, as the mercurial Liam, seldom has rage under control, is barely likable and selfish; the quiet, withdrawn Jonah, played by Nick Stevens, nicely exudes strength; and the lithe Jamie Nablo completes the cast as Melody, naïve, soft and kind, but nevertheless takes the brunt of the night’s attacks on reason.

As the axiom goes, “The truth will set you free. But first, it’ll tick you off.” “Bad Jews” is such a journey for truth and doing the right thing.

THEATER REVIEW

"Bad Jews"

Friday in Jewish Repertory Theatre

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