In the first scene of “Bad Jews,” which is currently at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, two cousins are alone in a nice New York City apartment. Daphna (played by Laura Lapidus) is trying to make conversation, but Jonah (Amos VanderPoel) seems to be trying to ignore her.
We soon learn why. Daphna is impossible. Honestly, she’s one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a play — smart but insecure, angry at the world and ready to hurl withering insults at anyone who comes near her. She’s a pitbull in a tie-dyed T-shirt and sweatpants.
The play, written by Joshua Harmon and first produced off-Broadway in 2012, is meant to be a darkly funny look at a family at war with itself. Its central conflict is between Daphna and Jonah’s brother Liam (Alec Silberblatt). Their grandfather, Poppy, has just died; Daphna is in New York for the funeral, and is staying in Jonah’s apartment. And Daphna and Liam both want his chai — the Hebrew letters for “life,” worn by some Jewish men on a neck chain as a symbol of their faith.
Poppy’s family was slaughtered in the Holocaust. While imprisoned, himself, in a concentration camp, he, kept the chai from being stolen by Nazis by hiding it under his tongue. Then, after coming to the United States, he gave his future wife the chai as a symbol of their engagement, since he was too poor to buy a ring. Later, when he had enough money to buy a ring, he took the chai back, and wore it till the day he died.
So the chai has a tremendous amount of sentimental value. Daphna thinks she should inherit it, because she’s the most religious grandchild. Liam wants to give it to the (Christian) woman he intends to propose to, Melody (Maddie Jo Landers), and claims that Poppy told him he wanted him to have it. (Poppy didn’t specify his wishes in writing).
Liam and Melody missed the funeral; they were on a ski vacation together, and Liam lost his cellphone. But they soon arrive at the apartment, and it’s basically World War III between Liam and Daphna. While she’s the more unreasonable one, he works himself into a frenzy of anger, too, and Melody inevitably gets hit with some verbal shrapnel (while Jonah tries to remain neutral and out of the line of fire).
Daphna grills Melody about her family’s background; Melody’s family is from Delaware, but doesn’t know much about her heritage beyond that. Dapha finds it important to make the point that Melody’s ancestors must have displaced Native Americans in the past, and so she asks, “Where did your family come from before they moved to Delaware to commit genocide?”
At different points in the play, Daphna and Melody go into the bathroom while other characters — Liam, when Daphna goes into the bathroom, and Daphna, when Melody goes into the bathroom — vent about them. It doesn’t occur to these supposedly intelligent characters that they are yelling so loudly they can probably be heard in the next building, let alone the bathroom they’re practically standing right in front of.
Landers has a funny bit when Melody, responding to Daphna’s disingenuous prodding, sings an excruciatingly bad version of the “Porgy and Bess” standard “Summertime” (Melody had studied opera before giving up that dream). But then it’s back to more sparring by Daphna and Liam.
Along the way, some serious issues are raised, about family, and religion, and love, and the plays ends on an uncharacteristically sweet and understated note.
But these themes don’t have much of an impact since you spend so much of the evening gawking, and cringing, at Daphna’s over-the-top awfulness.
The title of the play, by the way, comes from a story Daphna tells about Liam in which he jokingly called himself a “bad Jew” for eating a leavened cookie on passover. But, Harmon seems to be asking, if you get the rules of a religion right but the spirit of it all wrong — as Daphna does — doesn’t that make you an even worse Jew?
“Bad Jews” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 9; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.