"Bad Jews" Makes Good Theatre: A Viciously Funny Play at the Geffen!

06/19/2015 04:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

IMG_4767 all photos by Michael Lamont for Geffen

Do you remember the commercial that proclaimed "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish rye bread"? Well, I'm going to paraphrase that to say that you don't have to be Jewish to like BAD JEWS, the play which opened last night at the Gil Cates Theatre of The Geffen Playhouse (10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, 310-208-5454). In fact, I might venture to say that non-Jews will have a greater objective understanding of the dynamics of this viciously funny play than we Jews, who bring all of our history and prejudices to it. According to Variety, this play by Joshua Harmon - which opened to great acclaim in New York in 2012 - is the third-most performed modern play in the U.S. this season. (In London, promotional posters for the provocatively-titled play were forbidden in the Underground subway or fear of offending. Frankly, I hate the title (don't judge a play by its title) .....but I did very much like the play. No, I didn't love it....I liked it. After all, it is exhausting to spend 100 minutes (no intermission) watching one of the most obnoxious leading lady characters I've ever seen in the theatre take brilliant command of a drama. It was directed superbly well by Mark Shakman, who is a Geffen alumni and top TV director.

Raviv Ullman, Molly Ephraim, Lili Fuller and Ari Brand in performance.

The setting of this dark comedy is a cramped studio apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan bought by their parents for the two college-age sons. There are four characters in the work (or five if you, like me, find that the leading lady's hair is an entity unto itself. Mr. Harmon describes Daphna Feygenbaum as "2/3rd body, 1/3rd hair." The lead male, her cousin, describes her thick hairdo, which she is always combing, as "hair that screams Jew." She, a non-stop talker veggie Jewess, claims to have an Israeli Army boyfriend: if so, he's another long-suffering Jew.

Molly Ephraim as Daphna
Molly Ephraim plays the role of Daphna.

Here's a Jewish family in turmoil over a grandfather's legacy. It's the night of his funeral. Three grandchildren of this holocaust survivor are joined by one brother's gentile girlfriend, Melody (Lili Fuller.) Daphna (Jewish name for Diane; Molly Ephrain) is the visiting cousin staying at the apartment of the two brothers, the silent, non-committal Jonah (Raviv Ullman) and the missing-for-the-moment Liam (Ari Brand.) The play depicts the battle between Daphna, the bright and volatile Vassar senior, and Liam, a Chicago postgraduate student. We see immediately that they are more hissing than kissing cousins. The battle is over a chaim (Hebrew for 'life') gold amulet/pendant which grandfather Poppy wore around his neck. We learn later that he spent two years in a concentration camp and hid the item, given him by his father, under his tongue the whole time. The ferocious family drama ensues....and we are witnesses to an epic battle of Old Testament proportions between two worthy opponents. In the mix is the serious question of what it means to be Jewish in today's secular culture. The protagonist Daphna represents an unquestioning belief in faith, tradition and ritual. Liam (born Schlomo), the self-styled bad Jew, is skeptical about all religion and is devoting himself to Japanese youth studies. He missed his grandfather's funeral because he was skiing in Aspen with Melody and lost his iPhone on the ski lift. They arrive a few minutes into the opening. He has the gold artifact and is planning to give it his girlfriend as an engagement offering instead of a ring. Over the dead body of Daphna, who desperately wants the medal for herself. Battle joined. Can a better Jew be a worse person? Nasty fun, all of this, with a terrifically-talented cast.

daphna and liam
Molly Ephraim and Ari Brand are the two leads.

The vigor of their combat is the essence of the play. Funny? Yes, it is often hilarious in its depiction, from the sardonic wit to the unspeakingly cruel. Daphna has a measure of personal cruelty in her humiliation ("you are carrying the genes of murdering Teutons who slew native Americans in untold numbers") of the unsuspecting, somewhat innocent Melody (who turns out to be a bit tougher than she looks, simply replying: "I don't want to have an argument."). Melody majored in opera in college but after a few auditions, went to work for a non-profit. In one moment, when she sings "Summertime," we see why she changed careers. Daphna calls Liam a Semetic opportunist who confesses his ethnicity only when he wants to disparage fellow Jews. Is the play claustrophic? Sure. But that's what gives it its intensity and keeps us sitting on the edge of our seats as we laugh and are shocked in equal measure. The ending is a somewhat sentimental and sad, fitting for this raw vibrant work.. Matt's direction is really superb. John Arnone did the realistic sets of pull-out beds and inflatable matresses, and E.B. Brooks did the costumes.

The play is running until July 19th, so I recommend that you - Jewish or not - get yourself to the Geffen quickly. Tickets run from $39 to $79 and can be purchased on-line, at the boxoffice, or by phone (310-208-5454) L.A. is becoming even more of a great theatre town, with Harold Pinter playing on the far end of town and now this riveting drama in midtown, with The Wallis in Beverly Hills and the Ahmanson downtown adding to the dramatic mix. So support live theatre by attending it all.

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