The airing of dirty laundry is never a pretty sight, and certainly not when it is your own. You sit there, cringing, laughing cautiously, and waiting for yet another torrent of humiliating truths to spew from the mouth of an actor.
With its perpetual infighting and familial conflict, “Bad Jews,” which opened at the Laura Pels Theatre on Oct. 3, takes the woes of the Jewish community in America and displays them for the entire world to see.
The effects are explosive. The play, written by Joshua Harmon and directed by Daniel Aukin, is centered on a Chai necklace, a gold chain with a two-letter word that means “life” in Hebrew, and an inheritance from a recently deceased grandfather that is promised to his grandchildren. The religious and familial significances of the necklace—which the grandfather kept with him throughout the Holocaust and used, in lieu of a ring, to marry his wife—resonates with the grandchildren and pits two volatile personalities against each other.
Tracee Chimo stars as Daphna, an American Jew who plans to join the Israeli army after graduation and marry her Israeli boyfriend. She sees herself as the only Jewish hope for the family and the necklace as her birthright. Her rival for the inheritance is her cousin, Liam, played by Michael Zegen, whose affection for non-Jewish women and total disdain for Jewish tradition boils Daphna’s blood.
Just to make matters worse, the woman who Liam has brought home is the perfectly lovely, civil, blond-haired, blue-eyed, goyishe Melody, played to a T by Molly Ranson. It is for her that Liam wants the necklace, to propose to her the same way his grandfather proposed to his grandmother, which Daphna sees as a horrific shandah.
Meanwhile, the hand-wringing Philip Ettinger takes up the role of Jonah, Liam’s younger brother who valiantly tries to avoid the swirling conflict around him. To make matters worse, the night after the funeral, they are all stuck bunking in the same living room together on the Upper West Side. Both Chimo and Zegen do not play their roles so much as inhabit them, each delving deeply into one half of the American Jewish psyche.
Both actors kept the tension building and constantly escalating, yet they were able to let the audience laugh every so often, tempering the conflict with shots of comedy. While it seemed like a purely familial spat on stage, every accusation and insult has deeper meaning. For Jews, this is not theater being played out on the stage but a microcosm of cultural discourse. It is an amalgamation of every argument and disagreement about our ethnic and religious identity in the paradise of America; it is paraded before us at a fevered pace, gripping us with claws of steel, forcing us to focus as the maelstrom of diametrical opposites are hurled together. This is a conversation that we have had many times amongst ourselves and with family and friends, but the results are never pretty and always bitter.
“Bad Jews” is a true look into the living rooms and the souls of the Jewish-American community. And, after being pounded by the latest results of the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jewry—which showed that 22 percent of Jews believe that they have no religion, and that 58 percent of Jewish marriages since 2005 were intermarriages—to see such familiar conflicts presented on stage was almost too much to bear. By the end of the play, there is no catharsis, reconciliation, or compromise. The battle on stage was a zero-sum game, a fight to the death with the fate of an entire culture, ethnicity, and religion seemingly at stake.
“Bad Jews” is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at 111 W. 46th St. through Oct. 31st. Tickets are $20.