One indisputable truth about Joshua Harmon’s savage, darkly comic Bad Jews is this: That title is as good as it gets for a playwright. How can you not want to know what a play called Bad Jews is about?
The first show of GableStage’s 17th season happens to be an example of what the company and artistic director Joseph Adler do best. A four-character recent Off-Broadway hit, Bad Jews is a rich if not flawless script with a quartet of great roles for young actors. Adler and his fine cast deliver every complicated twist and turn in Harmon’s emotionally volatile play about family, judgment and the permutations of faith.
Bad Jews takes place in a sleek studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The place has great views of the Hudson River but all the warmth of a hotel room, with less decor (that choice by set designer Lyle Baskin is a deliberate one). Turns out that the wealthy parents of Jonah Haber (Mark Della Ventura) and his brother Liam (David Rosenberg) bought this “extra” apartment in their building so the kids would have a private place to crash when they’re home from college.
They’re back, this time for a sad reason: “Poppy,” their beloved grandfather, has died. Cousin Daphna Feygenbaum (Natalia Coego) has come down from Vassar for the funeral. As she and Jonah await the arrival of Liam and his girlfriend Melody (Lexi Langs), Daphna grows increasingly agitated. Seems Liam and Melody have missed the service because they were off doing some spring break skiing in Aspen, and Liam didn’t get the message about Poppy’s passing right away due to a cellphone mishap.
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The meat of the play is the wrangling between Daphna and Liam over who should inherit Poppy’s golden Chai medallion, symbolic of life, love and their grandfather’s very survival during the Holocaust. But the rivalry between the cousins goes much, much deeper than the fight over a treasured piece of jewelry.
Daphna, whose given name is Diana, is a faithful firebrand who plans to move to Israel after graduation, join the army and marry her Israeli fiancé, whom no one in the family has met. Liam is finishing up his master’s degree, focusing on contemporary Japanese youth culture, and planning to go for a Ph.D. He’s also serious about Melody, latest in a long line of non-Jewish girlfriends, and his seeming lack of connection to his family’s faith infuriates Daphna, whom he calls “super Jew.”
Yes, things get very, very ugly as these articulate young adults clash. Particularly cruel comments make a few in the audience gasp. But the fighting in some families is of the scorched-earth variety. And the actors, so utterly and artfully invested in these roles, make each character fascinating to watch.
Coego, sporting a cascade of unruly curly hair, crafts a Daphna who would make a first-rate sniper, if words were the weapons of choice. Daphna’s holier-than-thou attitude and condescending cruelty toward Melody would seem to preclude any empathy, but Coego allows many emotional colors to shimmer through her captivating performance.
Rosenberg’s Liam is wiry, tightly wound and every inch Daphna’s equal in slinging nasty verbal arrows — a formidable opponent for his loathed cousin. Langs’ Melody is sweet, observant and, as it turns out, a determined referee. Quiet Jonah, played in an utterly convincing and naturalistic way by Della Ventura, refuses to engage in the cousin histrionics. But still waters, as we learn in the play’s final moments, run deep.
One could pick at facets of the script — the abruptness of a shared childhood memory intended as comic relief, for example, or the convenient way characters disappear into the bathroom so the others can talk about them — but the few intermittent flaws are far outweighed by Harmon’s smart, blazing writing. And by yet another excellent GableStage production.
If you go
What: ‘Bad Jews’ by Joshua Harmon.
Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 21 (no evening show Nov. 24, no Thanksgiving show, additional matinee 2 p.m. Nov. 29).
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.