Through Dec. 21
1501 14th Street, N.W.
You don’t choose your family. In playwright Joshua Harmon’s dark comedy “Bad Jews” now at Studio Theatre, the old saying is demonstrated with eviscerating clarity.
It’s the evening after their grandfather’s funeral and college-age Jonah (Joe Paulik) is decompressing with his cousin Daphna (Irene Sofia Lucio) in the Riverside Drive studio apartment he shares with his conspicuously absent older brother Liam.
While Jonah would prefer to quietly keep to himself, Daphna can’t stop talking. First, she jibes him about his family’s cushy Manhattan lifestyle so unlike her own upbringing as the offspring of public school teachers in Pennsylvania. Then she criticizes him for continuously kowtowing to his brother. And she can’t get over how Liam has missed his own grandfather’s funeral because he dropped his iPhone from a ski lift in Aspen.
But finally, Daphna addresses what’s really on her mind: She wants their grandfather Poppy’s gold chai (the Hebrew word and symbol for life), the one he always wore around his neck except for the two years he spent in a concentration camp when he hid it under his tongue. For Daphna, who sees herself as the “most Jewish” of the grandchildren, giving her the man’s necklace seems a no-brainer. She is her generation’s keeper of tradition. Not a bad Jew like her cousin Liam who sneers at religious customs. And she wants seemingly pliant Jonah to support her desire. Knowing that his brother already has designs on the amulet, Jonah is put in an impossibly awkward position. He opts to stay out of it.
Soon, Liam (Alex Mandell) arrives with sugary girlfriend Melody (Maggie Erwin) in tow. He’s appalled to see Daphna there camping out in the small flat (realistically rendered by set designer Luciana Steconni), and decides that he and Melody should sleep at his parents’ far grander digs down the hall, but soon learns their inn is full. Close quarters aren’t ideal for two people who don’t like each other in the best of circumstances. But in this case, the place proves horrendously claustrophobic.
Ultimately this intratribal battle royal is about more than Poppy’s chai. It’s about whether to remain distinctly Jewish or assimilate into homogenized Americans. She believes it’s worth preserving. He thinks something based on the Biblical accounts isn’t worth keeping. Daphna and Liam’s differences are vast, but what these smart millennials share besides blood, is the ability to viciously push each other’s buttons in the way that only family can.
Harmon, a young playwright based in New York, has a wonderful ear — his dialogue is real to life. Never once do Daphna and Liam’s fighting words ring false, even when they are ever-so-articulately going for the jugular. The production is masterfully led by Studio’s Producing Director Serge Seiden, who is gay. Lucio is a terrific comic actor. Her Daphna is a scary force of nature, tinged with sadness. As Liam, Mandell’s palpable rage and frustration fill the theater. And as witnesses Jonah and Melody, Paulik is wonderfully uncomfortable and Erwin sweetly baffled.
And though the ending feels a little contrived, what precedes it is funny and powerful.