Fort Worth — Like papers caught up in an Oz-like tornado, pieces of a darkly engaging comedy keep whirling by in Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, the opener for Stage West’s 37th season. But the storm of argument onstage is a wind that never stops blowing—and it’s surprisingly hard to find the funny in this noisy battle between two willful cousins, who make life miserable for the quieter people in their lives.
Who, you end up asking, would actually stick around for this knife fight? Yes, they’re all sleeping free in the tiny but posh Manhattan apartment the parents of Liam (Garret Storms) and Jonah (Matthew Grondin) bought for their barely grown boys. Yes, every bed in the parent’s larger place in the same building is already taken as family comes in for the funeral of a beloved grandfather, a Holocaust survivor they called Poppy.
But surely there’s a hotel room to be had with Dad’s credit card, if the two brothers wanted to get away. Even the dreadful Daphna (Kelsey Milbourn), a Vassar senior bent on showing she’s the only “good Jew” in any room, could find a college connection and a couch to surf. And where Liam went, so would go the chirpy Melody (Alexandra Lawrence), the latest “Bambi” in what Daphna implies is Liam’s string of non-Jewish girlfriends.
Of course, Daphna has a reason to stick around. There’s something she wants: Poppy’s “chai”, a small religious medallion that survived the camps by being hidden under his tongue for years. By tradition, it’s the men who wear it—but Daphna is sure if she talks, and keeps talking, her cousins will understand that she, the “uber-Jew” who plans to move to Israel for rabbinical studies, should inherit.
We recognize the verbal angling, something we’ve all seen following a death: the “who wants what” and “everyone knows it was promised to me.” It’s a family thing, universal and amusing. But Jonah, a mysteriously passive young man, refuses to take sides, to Daphna’s frustration—and Liam, a grad student who missed the funeral (his cell phone dropped off an Aspen ski lift), is equally loud in declaring Poppy promised the chai to him. In fact, he’s got plans for it that involve his deepening relationship to Melody, an opera student he met on Match.com—if she isn’t scared off by all the screaming.
Garret Storms is vital and sharp as Liam, who makes it clear he thinks Daphna (he annoys her by using her original non-Hebrew name, Diana) is a suburban poser who thinks she’s above them all. He hates Daphna’s constant hairbrushing—her “Jew hair” sheds on everything, he says. Liam is a perpetual grad student studying Japanese culture. Tellingly, he’s mostly uninterested in his own. Matthew Grondin is a gentle and sympathetic presence as Jonah, who tries to avoid taking sides—but he’s mysterious, too. We aren’t sure if he’s deeply detached, or just biding his time.
Kelsey Milbourn as Daphna is so strident and single-minded it’s hard to empathize with her one-note character. She may have had (or still has?) a yen for Liam that’s gone unanswered; is that supposed to explain away her deep rage and resentment toward these wealthier cousins? She’s so awful that the other characters have to take shelter in the bathroom, or in the hallway outside the apartment (used for screaming, kissing, imaginary Daphna stranglings and more in Jim Covault’s clever set design). Sweet Melody seems like her antithesis at first, but Lawrence transcends our initial impression that Melody is a terminally naïve and cheerful sort without any depth or nuance. She grows more interesting and edgy, a “good person” who has to decide if (and how) she’ll fight for her relationship with Liam.
There are some genuinely funny lines—Daphna spits that the blonde Melody looks like she was “water-birthed in a Talbot’s”—but the writing, for all its sound and fury, isn’t really that imaginative or sharp. Something is referred to, redundantly, as “an intellectual feast for the mind.” And while bad language among “bad Jews” or anyone else is fine, if you bring out the big guns—“fucking cunt/bitch/whore” and such—the cannonballs ought to be flying both ways. There is a great deal of harsh language and condescending humor directed at the female characters; Daphna is one of the worst offenders, in fact. It highlights a fact that affects all of us, not just raw Juilliard-trained playwrights like Harmon: there is no equivalently awful terminology to use on the guys.
TCU film and television professor—and screenwriter and playwright (Starbright & Vine)—Richard Allen directs ably, but our sense is that we’ve seen this kind of family fight onstage before, and the playwright’s sometimes awkward back-and-forthing between black comedy and poignant Holocaust memories keeps us from entirely engaging with the production. In the end, the quarrel isn’t resolved, the combatants go on their way, and we sense that fallout from this destructive evening will go on and on.
That’s the moment when Harmon chooses to play his final Holocaust card. It’s a tender and unexpected moment, certainly, though it feels oddly disconnected from the action of the play.
The battling cousins of Bad Jews argue long and hard about whether the ancient Jewish culture should be preserved, or left to meld into the (theoretically) non-ethnic future. By the end, unfortunately, we haven’t decided which is better; we’re just glad they’ve stopped shouting.