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A Riveting Production of Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” at The Magic

 

 

The Magic Theatre is presenting the scathingly hilarious comedy “Bad Jews”  by Joshua Harmon through October 5th.   The New York Times said that “Bad Jews” was “delectably savage and supremely funny” and I am inclined to second that.  It most certainly is deliciously ferocious and superlatively hilarious.

“Bad Jews” is about an emotional struggle between three cousins.  This is less a political polemical than an aggressive domestic drama about Jewish identity in the modern world. It certainly not flawless but it does show the playwright has the capacity to write scorching pomposity.

The setting is a cramped Upper West Side New York studio apartment where three cousins Dapha, Liam and Jonah by different families, of a Holocaust survivor have gathered for the old man’s funeral.  They are all Jewish.  Dapha (Rebecca Benhayon) a bright Vassar senior, Liam (Max Rosenak) a Chicago postgraduate are more hissing than kissing cousins.  For Dapha, her Jewish identity links her to a traditional stretching back for thousands of year. Liam is a self-styled “bad Jew” who has missed his grandfather’s funeral since he was skiing in Aspen with his goyim girlfriend. This chochem  is skeptical about religion who is brazenly devoting himself to Japanese studies.  Not only that but he has brought home his “shiksa” girlfriend Melody (Riley Krull).  On the sidelines is Cousin Jonah (Kenny Toll) who is so laid back that he does not want to enter Dapha and Liam’s vicious and hilarious brawl over family, faith and legacies.

The resulting quarrel is the meat of the play. The verbal confrontation is on the securing of their grandfather’s beloved chai, a religious ornament.  Dapha feels it’s hers by right; she’s the only true believer among the three grandchildren, the lone Jew of the three.  She discovers, with revulsion, that Liam has already secured the ornament since his mother passed it along after obtaining it from bedridden father.  Dapha becomes unbalanced with grief, anger and bitterness and now demands the chai from Liam.  Of course Liam is not going to give it to her.

Watched by Liam’s gentile girlfriend and his fence-sitting brother the two antagonists go at each other raising serious questions about what it means to be Jewish in today’s global culture.  The strength of the play lies in the potency of their combat which reminds me of verbal firepower of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

 

Superb performances under Ryan Guzzo Purcell’s fast pact direction make this a gripping production. Rebecca Benhayon gives a vivid performance as Dapha. She conveys all of the character’s needling assurance while hinting at her lurking insecurity.   Max Rosenak is excellent as Liam and he brings out the unevenness of the character’s rationality. Riley Krull gives an outstanding performance as the gentle gentile Melody. She might as well have “shiksa” emblazoned across her forehead also.  However she is tougher than she looks in some of the latter scenes.  Kenny Toll as Liam’s neutral brother strikingly shows how even non-combatants can be scarred by this verbal crossfire.

Ryan Guzzo Purcell keeps the pacing fast pace and the dealings tightly focused. Eric Flatmo’s upscale but overcrowded studio apartment with its pull-out and inflatable beds adds to claustrophobic atmosphere of the violent argument to the two cousins.

Joshua Harmon “Bad Jews” played through October 5th at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-441-8822 or on line at www.magictheatre.org

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