Choos­ing laughs over hard truth

‘Bad Jews’ is a high-vol­ume fam­ily squab­ble that fa­vors laughs over truths.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

The mes­sage “Bad Jews” hopes to de­liver is up­ended by the play’s hu­mor.

Daphna (Molly Ephraim), an opin­ion­ated and quar­rel­some Vas­sar se­nior, has em­braced her Ju­daism to the ex­tent that she plans to move to Is­rael af­ter grad­u­a­tion, start a rab­bini­cal pro­gram led by a fe­male ve­gan rabbi and even join the Is­raeli army if she can get around the immigration ob­sta­cles.

It’s hard to imag­ine any­one com­pet­ing with her di­a­tribes, but her cousin Liam (Ari Brand), a grad­u­ate stu­dent in cul­tural stud­ies with a sec­u­lar world­view and a blond girl­friend, gives her a run for her bois­ter­ous money.

Lung power is an es­sen­tial re­quire­ment of Joshua Har­mon’s cor­ro­sive com­edy “Bad Jews,” which opened Wed­nes­day at the Gef­fen Play­house un­der the di­rec­tion of Matt Shak­man. The play, a hit in New York and Lon­don and one of this sea­son’s most pro­duced works, em­ploys a sit­com-y setup to bring these two op­pos­ing tem­per­a­ments within scream­ing dis­tance of each other.

Af­ter their grand­fa­ther, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, dies, Daphna and Liam are forced to bunk to­gether in the New York stu­dio apart­ment (con­vinc­ingly con­jured by scenic de­signer John Arnone) that Liam’s wealthy par­ents bought for him and his brother, Jonah (Ra­viv Ull­man), in their build­ing.

Daphna, never more morally out­raged than when she’s jeal­ous, can’t get over this real es­tate ex­trav­a­gance — a pied-à-terre with river views for broth­ers who haven’t even fin­ished school yet.

“Um, in nor­mal fam­i­lies, Jonah, if peo­ple need a place to sleep, they like sleep on the couch, or dou­ble up in beds, or even — and this will re­ally shock you — sleep in sleep­ing bags,” this self-ap­pointed queen of com­mon sense can’t help point­ing out. “They don’t buy a spare apart­ment on the of­fchance some­one might need to spend the night.”

Liam, who has brought his sweet but none-too­bright girl­friend Melody (Lili Fuller) along, doesn’t have his brother’s tol­er­ance for Daphna. In fact, he can’t spend five min­utes in the same room with her with­out go­ing com­pletely berserk. He thinks her “über-Jew” rou­tine is all an act, in­sists that her name is ac­tu­ally Diana (“I know she wishes she were this like barbed-wire­hop­ping, Uzi-tot­ing Is­raeli war­lock su­per­hero”) and rails at the way she brushes her frizzy hair all over the place.

Daphna con­sid­ers Liam a self-hat­ing Jew who chooses “tepid lit­tle Bambi crea­tures” like Melody out of a pa­thetic com­bi­na­tion of “hy­per­mas­cu­line” ar­ro­gance and in­se­cu­rity. She has a knack for seiz­ing on weak­nesses, and any in­for­ma­tion she gleans about her en­emy — such as the de­lec­ta­ble tid­bit that Liam and Melody met on Match.com — is used to gain an ad­van­tage.

The plot, such as it is, in­volves a Chai medal­lion that be­longed to the grand­fa­ther, which he hid in his mouth dur­ing his years in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. Daphna thinks that she, as the grand­child most con­nected to Jewish her­itage, should in­herit it.

Liam, how­ever, is al­ready in pos­ses­sion of the heir­loom, and he plans to give it to Melody when he pro­poses to her, just as his grand­fa­ther gave the medal­lion to his bride when he was too poor to af­ford a ring.

This conf lict pro­vides a neat way of struc­tur­ing the com­bat be­tween Liam and Daphna, but the rich­ness of the play is in the flam­boy­ant vit­riol of the lan­guage and the dys­func­tional gusto of the char­ac­ters. The sit­u­a­tion, which grows con­trived in the fi­nal stretch, is merely a pre­text for ver­bal war games.

Har­mon, a re­cent grad­u­ate of Juil­liard, com­pli­cates the play’s over­all ar­gu­ment by cre­at­ing such f la­grantly messy and flawed charac- ters. But in ex­ag­ger­at­ing their traits be­yond even the point of stereo­typ­ing, he oc­ca­sion­ally makes the rookie mis­take of pur­su­ing laughs over truth.

Melody is such a sim­ple­ton that the mock­ery she elic­its not only feels cheap but it un­der­mines any cred­i­bil­ity in Liam’s ro­man­tic at­tach­ment to her. Daphna grows so mean-spir­ited that it’s a mys­tery why any­one would put up with her rant­ing. And Jonah is a lit­tle too un­der­de­vel­oped to bear the weight his char­ac­ter is given in a sur­prise twist at the end.

Shak­man’s pro­duc­tion tries to amend these short­com­ings by keep­ing the ac­tors as grounded as pos­si­ble. Even when one of them is fly­ing through one of play’s re­lent­less speeches — the riffs are like a cross be­tween a vo­cif­er­ous David Mamet ha­rangue and a self-dra­ma­tiz­ing Richard Green­berg aria — the psy­chol­ogy be­hind the tor­rent of words is re­spected.

“Bad Jews” is a lit­tle too in­tent on keep­ing its au­di­ence gig­gling to fully re­al­ize the al­le­gory on ex­trem­ism in­her­ent in its tale. But the hu­mor does more than en­ter­tain — it vexes and dis­turbs while chal­leng­ing sim­plis­tic dis­tinc­tions be­tween “good” and “bad” Jews.

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

MOLLY EPHRAIM and Ra­viv Ull­man play cousins Daphna and Jonah in “Bad Jews,” about a fam­ily at war over an heir­loom and their faith. The play, pop­u­lar in New York and Lon­don, is at the Gef­fen Play­house.

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