Family, oy! No one knows better where your buttons are or how to push them for maximum effect. Dip an already quarrelsome clan into the stress stew of a funeral's aftermath and not only do buttons get pushed, the whole darn switchboard gets trampled on. But before you think you know this play well enough from its familiar narrative outline, think again. Yes, this is a play that cooks up cousin against cousin with a healthy serving of Jewish affectation as the marinade, but Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews isn't so much a commentary on the vagaries of North American Semitic family life as it is a commentary on more far-reaching and frankly meatier concerns.
Issues of family loyalty, tradition, faith, identity and how our version of the truth is filtered by all of the above is up for grabs in Harmon's 2013 comedic yet weighty 90-minute play. His characters may be Jewish and the details that fuel their fury may stem from a particular cultural upbringing, but Harmon's use of a family quarrel to evoke meaning would work just as well with any ethnicity or race folded into the batter. There's a reason this Off Broadway hit has become the third most produced play of the 2014-15 American season. The show may have some serious narrative flaws, but it's a story we can all relate to in some form or another.
Characters are drawn firmly on the divide in this story. Daphna (Tasha Gorel) née Diana, is a self-styled "super Jew" who's changed her first name to reflect a newly unflinching adherence to her Jewish heritage. She's been to Israel, thank you very much, and makes sure everyone knows about it. This is a young woman bent on becoming the kind of devout Jew who navel-gazes into her own gene pool and has no time for the assimilated dilution she sees her brethren falling into. She is also the only granddaughter of Poppy, her now deceased beloved Holocaust survivor grandfather, and has come home for his funeral with one thing on her mind: To get possession of the religiously significant and historic family necklace her grandfather wore during his time in the camps and throughout his life.
She's taken up temporary residence with her cousin Jonah (Jason Duga), the wishy-washy, "I'm not mixing in," never-one-to-pick-a-side twentysomething grandson who would rather play video games than be dragged into family squabbles. In anticipation of the arrival of her longtime nemesis and Jonah's older brother, Liam (Kevin Crouch), Daphna primes Jonah on all the reasons she deserves to be the one to inherit the necklace. After all, PhD candidate Liam was too busy skiing in Aspen (where, he swears, he lost his phone) with his gentile girlfriend, Melody (Amy Michele Mire), to bother to come home for Poppy's funeral.
But he's on his way home now, Melody in tow, to stay at the studio apartment (simply realized by Jodi Bobrovsky) and participate in the Jewish mourning period for his grandfather despite his abhorrence of the traditions and rules of his religion. This is a man who boldly ate shortbread in front of his family at Passover, flippantly calling himself out as a bad Jew for all to hear. A man doing his doctorate in Japanese culture in an "anything but my culture" kind of existence.
Liam's derision stops, however, when it comes to his grandfather and what he, and his necklace, meant to him. He wants the heirloom for very different reasons than Daphna's, and he's not giving in. From the minute the trio plus one are trapped like rats in Jonah's Upper West Side pad (paid for by his wealthy parents), the issue of the necklace becomes the item around which the intelligently bombastic cousins viciously air grievances about each other and the tenants guiding the other's path in life. All gloves are off, and no amount of peace brokering by Jonah or Melody is going to stem the tide.
Harmon delivers this all to us using a structure in which much of the monologue is thinly disguised as dialogue. His characters don't argue with each other so much as they yell at one another in long, drawn-out, preach-from-their-particular-pulpit stretches. Thankfully, under Jordan Jaffe's acute direction, we get distracted from the unnatural flow of the exchanges and are instead given wide swath to laugh at some superbly constructed and wonderfully performed comedic moments. As Liam, Crouch steals the spotlight in these instances with his one-toe-away-from-utter-hysteria outbursts that air his increasingly funny outrage over Daphna's holier-than-thou attitude, her sense of Jewish entitlement and her claim to an Israeli boyfriend that Liam is sure doesn't exist. Crouch's control over his character's spinning out is a marvel to behold, and Jaffe ensures the energy of the outbursts fills up the tiny studio apartment by flinging Liam about like a rabid bird in a cage.
As Melody, the sweet if not so smart, doe-eyed, pin-straight blond-haired outsider, Amy Michele Mire also gets to sizzle under the funny lamp. At Daphna's sarcastic taunting, the clueless Melody is called upon to show off the singing talent she spoke of to a snake-like Daphna when the girls had a moment alone. Mire's resulting performance of Ella Fitzgerald's "Summertime" is a lesson in how to use facial expression and octave pitches to maximum comedic effect. Sure, the effect is utterly silly and under anyone else's watch the song might have fallen with a thud into the land of cheap farce. But Mire, with her projected sweetness and helpful innocence, pulls it off beautifully and provides a nice reprieve from all the family angst being vomited onstage.
As Josh, Duga is more observer than participant in the action, and his subtle performance is the only thing grounding the play's excesses. Duga shrugs and slouches and avoids confrontation throughout the play with the confidence of a young man who has other things on his mind. Harmon has a heady punch line in store for Josh at the end of the show that has the thud of the overwritten, but Duga brings as much believability to the revelation as possible. Harmon wants us to know that sometimes it's the quiet ones who say the most, and Duga's sheepish calm is a lovely match for this message.
Daphna, however is a problem. Not that Gorel, with her leonine mess of frizzy curls that she can't stop fussing with as if in some kind of righteous nervous tic, doesn't do a fine job spewing Daphna's brash judgments on all who dare disagree with her. Far from anodyne, Daphna lashes out to sting. Gorel lectures and accuses and looks down her nose at her secular cousin and his "inferior" gentile girlfriend with great manipulative commitment. Trouble is that while she may have some salient points to make, Harmon has written her as so unlikable that we tune out. When Daphna cruelly goes after Melody for no reason other than that she can, we turn on her. As a result, the decks get decidedly stacked against whatever points Harmon wants Daphna to convey. Whether we want to believe him or not, Harmon forces us to side with Liam, a character he's written with far more shades of gray. While this doesn't necessarily stop our enjoyment of the play in a zesty moment-by-moment way, it does greatly skew the point of view in a way I suspect Harmon didn't intend.
We are all bad Jews and none of us are bad Jews. We all make decisions that bring us closer to and move us farther away from our heritage and cultural beliefs. Is one path better than the other? Are we fit to judge? Who is the greatest holder of family truth? These are the important questions we could all be asking as we shuffle out of the play. Shame, then, that we get too tangled up by distaste to have the conversation.
Bad Jews Through May 3. The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, 5601 South Braeswood, 713-527-0123, stagestheatre.com.