By Patrick Hurley
Family and religion, a combination that sees no end in dramatic conflict, is hilariously observed in Joshua Harmon’s bitingly funny Bad Jews, playing now through July 19 at the Geffen Playhouse.
On the night of their grandfather’s funeral, two brother’s Jonah (Raviv Ullman) and Liam (Ari Brand) are joined at Jonah’s apartment by their cousin Daphna (Molly Ephraim), who proclaims herself the most devout Jew in her family, and Liam’s new girlfriend Melody (Lili Fuller), an overly sweet, blonde gentile who gets caught up in a family drama she may be ill-equipped for.
Daphna and Liam both lay claim to a family heirloom, a religious symbol that their grandfather wore. Daphna insists she should be the one to get it because she is clearly the most deserving, seeing as how she is the most devout, and Liam has other, much more secular plans for it. Both Liam and Daphna also harbor deep-rooted resentments toward each other. Resentments that come spewing out from the moment they’re in the same room together, bringing Jonah and Melody along for the dysfunctional and vicious ride.
The two verbally battle each other, and dismantle one another using the most personal and hurtful weapon they can. The truth. Daphna calls Liam a bad Jew, Liam calls Daphna…well nearly everything he can think of. His monologue while she’s in the bathroom is one of the most hilariously venomous monologues I’ve ever heard. He vomits it out in a fit of fist-clenching mania. He gets angrier and angrier about her, and he spirals down into such a rage-fueled final sentence that when he stops speaking the audience bursts into applause.
So what’s the point? Religion plays a large part in this play, but it’s not really about religion. Family and faith, the ties that bind and gag. It’s about loyalty and understanding. There is a deep sense that Daphna, though antagonistic to Liam, is really telling him that he’s better than his own behavior. And Liam, even though he reacts with disdain and contempt for Daphna continues to engage with her on family memories and religious ideals. Even though they mostly disagree, there is something bigger at stake than just a family heirloom. Something personal. The clinging to tradition and family for their own sake is perhaps more important than any exegesis of scripture.
This production is crackling with energy. Director Matt Shakman keeps all the rage nicely contained, and the bitter back-and-forth never slips into a screaming match. It moves at a bristling pace. The set of Jonah’s New York apartment, designed by John Arnone, is gorgeous, and adds a nice layer of naturalism. Joshua Harmon’s script would work in a minimalist setting as well. It is all about the relationships that are existing in this world, and not really at all about the world itself. Mr. Harmon has a gift for irreverence and dark humor, particularly from Liam. Lines like “don’t Holocaust me,” have a particular sting to them, and they’re hilarious because of it. Anyone who’s ever had a relative that drives them crazy will immediately relate to Liam.
The cast is fantastic. Ari Brand, as Liam, in particular, gives a wonderfully intense and incensed performance. he is teetering on the edge. The bubbling undercurrent of Liam’s rage manifests itself in Mr. Brand’s clenched fists, wide eyes, and stiff posture. Every time Daphna talks you can feel him tightening, as if he were readying himself for battle. Molly Ephraim, as Daphna, is also quite convincing. She seems to relish every minute of it. The joy she takes in deflating and humiliating Liam comes through her devious smile, her inflection, and her small quirks, like arching her back, and clapping her hands together for emphasis when she’s making a point. She also slaps her hands on the countertop whenever she wants to drill home a particular point. She’s not exactly likable, but we can’t hate her either, which is a feat for an actress. It’s a very nuanced performance. Ravi Ullman is great as Jonah, who seems to want to always disengage from what’s happening. He spends a good deal of the play in a corner or off to the side, avoiding. But his reactions are priceless. Lili Fuller is also great as Melody. She is sweet and kind, and perhaps a little delusional, but she maintains a strength that keeps her just likable enough for us to be on her side.
In the end, this is a darkly funny and intimate portrayal of a family torn between different faiths, different ideals, and different coping mechanisms, and it’s presented in a biting, harsh, and ultimately hilarious production.
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Matt Shakman
June 17-July 19
10886 Le Conte Avenue.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
In Person at the Box Office