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Bad Jews — Walnut Independence Studio on 3

jews15When Joshua Harmon depicts “Bad Jews” in his play of that name, he’s not referring so much to the unobservant or irreverent Jew as to the Jew who qualifies as one “bad mutha****ah.”

First cousins Diane Feygenbaum, who prefers to be called by her Hebrew name, Daphna, and Liam Haber, who Daphna taunts at times by calling him by his Hebrew name, Shlomo, forced to share a small apartment for a few days, know the ground on which they each want to stand and will not be budged, especially by the other.

Daphna is the kind of woman who would stir up ill feelings about any ethnic group with which she could be identified. She practically promotes anti-Semitism with her relentless carping, taunting, complaining, accusing, one-upping, and self-righteous declaring she is the most deserving of the cousins because she is the closest to her Jewish roots, the one who honored her late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, the most, and the one who had the least privileged childhood, growing up as the daughter of two teachers from rural Pennsylvania (I read Berks County) as opposed to being the offspring of a rich couple who own two apartments at 84th and Riverside, one of which has been given to Liam and his quieter, less combatant brother, Jonah, for their Manhattan pied a terre.

Daphna can exhaust you with her instigating and by excusing her trespasses while she magnifies what she judges to be those of her cousins’, especially Liam’s.

Liam is about to do two things that are bound to propel Daphna into paroxysms of venomous anger. He is about to become engaged to Melody, a non-Jew Liam met in Chicago, where he attends graduate school, and he, Daphna learns, is about to seal this precursor to matrimony with a significant article of family jewelry Daphna particularly craves.

Daphna needs no provocation to be unpleasant or demanding. In David Stradley’s production of “Bad Jews” at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio, actress Sofie Yavorsky consistently and brilliantly makes you wish Daphna would disappear or just shut up. Harmon is canny in making the crux of his funny, all-too-accurate play the introduction of a shikse (a non-Jewish woman, generic but usually intoned with disdain) and the prospect that she may end up possessing the coveted heirloom Daphna so desperately wants.

Now I have to tell you that if I was living “Bad Jews” in real life, and I had to put up with Daphna for 10 minutes, there would be no play. Should she throw it in my face that her family cannot afford a New York hotel room for as many days as it takes to see her grandfather pass, attend his funeral, and observe his shiva. I would, with flourish, inform her that I, being more privileged, can indeed pay for a room and will gladly vacate my own apartment and take on that expense to be shed of her.

Harmon gives neither Liam nor Jonah any such brainstorm, so there they are, stuck with the griping, denigrating, holier-than-thou Daphna for what will be days. Or, more likely, days that seem like years.

The beauty in Harmon’s play, and Stradley’s production, is the endless bickering of the Feygenbaum cousins is as amusing as it is annoying. Harmon and Yavorsky are excellent in escalating the degree of irritation Daphna can muster. Harmon is also clever in the way he has Liam become her foil and equally relentless adversary.

While Jonah sits sheepishly and just lets Daphna harp on in her criticism and disapproval of anything she can’t control or decide, Liam fights back. And he’s better at attacking because he doesn’t really care about the stakes or the issues at hand, as Daphna does. Liam just won’t give the shrew her forum, and since he can match Daphna taunt for taunt and insult for insult, he does. I imagine some audiences can take the opposite stance from mine and regard Liam as the instigator and pest, but I squarely put the onus on Daphna because she, as played by the magnificent Yavorsky, is the one I’d flee even if it meant camping out at Broadway diner and eating pickles all night.

The humor in “Bad Jews” comes from how deep the cousins can cut and in how savage they can be in their accusations and responses.

Its pathos derives from the same elements. You realize  you are seeing close blood relatives who will probably never cross each other’s paths voluntarily now that their grandfather, who endured so much because he happened to be Jewish, has passed. You can’t see Jonah or Liam attending a High Holiday or Passover dinner if there’s even a suggestion Daphna will be there. Daphna in turn has behaved in a way that renders her a rootless orphan once her parents die, and Jonah and Liam qualify as her next of kin, barring her finding a husband or having children, of course.

Although, from my perspective, Harmon stacks the deck against Daphna, making her the villain as it were, he has true contemporary issues, such as family unity, rampant Jewish intermarriage, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and the general civility people owe to others, adversarial cousins or not, lurking provocatively in the background.

“Bad Jews” is a comedy, and Harmon is adroit in providing funny lines that stimulate both laughter and a sense of “Oh my goodness, do you believe he said that?” But there is serious intent in its abundant humor. Two incidents at the end of the play, a comment Melody, in a lather, makes about the contested item of jewelry, and Jonah’s revelation of a tribute,  a bond of sorts, he makes with his newly late grandfather, are appropriately jaw-dropping. The best is neither feels like information or action being withheld as a playwright’s contrivance. They play organically and allow Harmon to catch you laughing with what will turn out to be a lump in your throat.

Stradley and his able company are able to maximize the humor, the commotion, and even the ideas that gnaw at you while you’re laughing or amazed at the extent Daphna or Liam will go to land the more decisive wound.

‘Bad Jews” is a good and well-crafted play because it goes so far beyond its superficial story, the tussle between cousins who are sure they have logic on their side, to make one think of so many collateral ideas.

Think, for instance, the reaction a play with Jewish characters would have gotten 50 years ago, in 1964, if Liam has brought home a Gentile fiancée. The grandfather’s shiva would double for his, and Daphna would, by far, become the sympathetic character, even if she was as incessantly aggressive as Yavorsky correctly portrays her.

Today, Liam, coming home with a non-Jewish intended, wins our favor. We like the generally sweet and massively set-upon Melody better than we like the assaultive Daphna. Liam, because he spars with Daphna in a way Jonah won’t or chooses to avoid, comes out to be the hero, even he is as obnoxious as Daphna or more intentionally hurtful. Remember, Daphna fights from self-righteousness and from a Jewish woman’s expectation to control a situation. Liam is more cold-blooded, less impressed with Daphna being younger, more sensitive, or a relative. He is just plain better at touching sore spots, piercing vital organs, and causing blood and tears to flow. Yet we root for Liam because Yavorsky’s Daphna has established herself as being so despicable from her first line to Jonah, with whom she is alone for about 12 minutes before Liam arrives with Melody.

Harmon is aware of the dynamics of argument and acquainted with the fact that Jews often speak empathically even when they are merely asking for bread to be passed. Stradley catches Harmon’s mood and tone and fills his production with comic fireworks that entertain and even appall, but not in a way that mars enjoyment of “Bad Jews.”

Yavorsky, dark curly hair cascading to below her shoulder blades, goes on the attack immediately as she admonishes Jonah for not staying in touch with her,  visiting her at Vassar, or inviting her to his school, Virginia Tech. She also tries to enlist  Jonah’s support in her quest to obtain her grandfather’s ‘Chai’ necklace.

The actress holds on to the fierceness of her character as tenaciously as Daphna goes for the jugular of her cousins and Melody.

Yavorsky does not give an inch as her performance anchors “Bad Jews” in several significant ways. In an earlier day, Daphna’s stance for better observance and more respect for Judaism would be hailed. As it stands today, Daphna looks like someone who can’t let anyone be peaceful or happy, the one who will always sue or negotiate for something more, even if one gives in just to shut up her last rant.

Daphna therefore becomes Harmon’s main irritant, but she is also the one, overstated or not, who represents traditional ideas about heritage and legacy. If Daphna was less domineering and more diplomatic in her approach, she could easily be the sympathetic character, especially because Liam is not that likeable.

Harmon made Daphna a nudnik, and Yavorsky plays the part to the hilt. The actress is willing to let her character be and remain unpopular. And she does so without a hint of self-consciousness. On the contrary, Yavorsky’s Daphna is all to authentic.

Daphna isn’t, however, the baddest Jew. Liam is.

The difference is Liam seems put-upon the minute he enters his apartment. Daphna is ticked because Liam was skiing with Melody in Aspen and couldn’t get back to New York in time for his grandfather’s funeral. She makes a big fuss about how Liam and Melody have to sleep on a blow-up mattress on the floor because he doesn’t deserve the comfort of the pull-out sofa bed Jonah is more than willing to offer him.  She knows she can’t say anything too directly too soon, but Yavorsky visually shows Daphna is miffed at the non-Jewish girlfriend and the intention to marry. She looks as Melody as she is a specimen the Natural History Museum preserves in formaldehyde.

Liam is quick and calculating in his attack. You take his side even before you realize Liam is pretty much immune to Daphna’s tantrums and can dish back in a way that scorches because Daphna, like many who do not take into account they may be hurting other people’s feelings or commenting on matters that are none of their business, is ultra-sensitive to any admonishment, criticism, or rebuke of herself.

She is not equipped to take abuse as well as heap it. She believes she speaks for the good of everyone and has the interest of justice and normality at heart. Selfishness is the last of her intentions.

Liam flat out doesn’t like his cousin, and he has no compunctions about forgetting her gender, her relationship to him, or her being younger when he answers her and tells her she is a scheming, meddling nothing who is only in his presence because her parent s are too cheap to part with their recess money.

Liam doesn’t care a fig for what he considers Daphna’s pretensions to piety or overbearing claim to be the one who will honor the bravery her grandfather showed while surviving a concentration camp with a Chai charm hidden under his tongue for two years.

Liam will lay Daphna flat out with two quick fingers to her windpipe and coolly order concert tickets while she fights for breath.

To Liam, Daphna is an impediment that must be driven to silence by using the one tactic that might work, being as mean and resolute as she is cloying and argumentative. Unlike Jonah, he is not putting up with his cousin for a second. If Daphna would agree to jump out of the 10th floor window, Liam would open it and call “tally ho” as Daphna sailed to her doom.

Liam knows who he is. He knows who Daphna is. And he’s tough.

Davy Raphaely is a wonderful Liam. He can be the sweet and open-hearted partner to Melody and the bolstering older brother to Jonah. He shows you Liam’s warm and social side. If Raphaely says it, you take his word that getting to Manhattan from Aspen with little notice was too complicated a journey for him to arrive there in time for Pop’s funeral. If he says he spoke to his grandfather on a sensitive matter of great importance, you have no doubt he did.

As cruel as Liam can be to Daphna, especially when he is provoked by her persistence and troublemaking way of expressing things, is how nice and loving he can be to Melody and how palsy and fraternal he can be with Jonah.

Yavorsky has to find several beats on which to play one note. Raphaely has the advantage of being able to play a gamut of personalities, all sincere, and all based on the person he is addressing, defending, comforting, or attacking at a given time. His is an all-encompassing performance, and Raphaely handles it in a way that makes Liam the champion of the evening. He may not tame Daphna, but he will cow her, and in the end, you know he will make sure it is he, and not Daphna, who possesses Pop’s fabled Chai.

On the sidelines, Jonah watches in a combination of amusement and horror as Daphna and Liam go at it.

Jonah is the peacemaker. He is more affected than Liam at Daphna’s rants, but he too can brush them off because nothing much bothers Jonah. He has made his own tribute to his grandfather, and he is uninterested in any particular bequest. He tends to back his brother, but as played by Greg Fallick, he every now and then indicates Daphna has a point.

Fallick’s ability to contain Jonah’s emotions and keep him removed though omnipresent is laudably admirable. His is a disciplined performance that boast all the quality by none of the bravura his castmates muster;

While his cousin and brother are having contrapuntal outbursts, Jonah’s cry is “Leave me out of this” or “I don’t want to be in the middle.” Fallick is like a superbly defensive tennis player in moving to sidelines and warding off any temptation to get between Daphna and Liam.

Jonah is not pleased by the contretemps in his midst. He would much rather be left alone to play video games or gaze at his latest treasure, his truly meaningful and sacrificial offering to his late grandfather’s memory and lasting place on Earth.

Fallick neatly shows a desire Jonah has to be almost anywhere else while realizing he’s stuck where he is. He will observe all that proceeds between Daphna, Liam, and Melody, but, with an elder’s wisdom, steer clear of it and refuse to be a referee or tie-breaker.

Laura Giknis makes Melody a darling while show quite plainly she has an edge.

Giknis’s Melody seeks to be a different kind of peacemaker than Fallick’s Jonah. She wants to be fair and hear all sides. She evens goes through a passage in which she is sympathetic to Daphna and marvels at a predatory Liam she has never seen in their months of courtship and falling in love.

Giknis gives Melody a naivety the cousins can’t convey, and her easy, homespun solution to things often proves to be unhelpful to a pair that makes it clear each is willing to fight to the death…and beyond.

Giknis keeps Melody so sunny, it is astounding when she is suddenly coaxed out of her friendly and neutral demeanor, partially because of what is heard through a bathroom door that doesn’t baffle or muffle sound. It is even more amazing when Melody has had enough of Daphna and her physical, as well as verbal, assault on her, and utters some chilling words that, in the last three minutes of Harmon’s play, make you wonder who’s side you should really take. Especially when it comes to the prized, and contested, Chai.

Joshua Harmon has written a play of multiple facets, many of which lay hidden behind the direct action of Daphna and Liam’s mortal conflict. Harmon provokes thought while evoking laughs, dozens of them. “Bad Jews” is a surehanded entertainment that is also about something important that it handles with variety and respect.

The uniform excellence of David Stradley’s cast is a testament to how effective he is as a director. Stradley adds to Harmon’s humor and takes advantage of his actors’ talent  by staging a nudge here, a wink there, a dance in this corner, a song in that one that gives “Bad Jews”  more texture and makes Harmon’s characters fuller and more developed. He provides smart direction that significantly enhances a smart play populated by smart people.

Julia Poiesz does a splendid job dressing each character, especially Jonah, whose style of shirt hides a great and rewarding surprise and whose nonchalance about lounging about in his boxers, until Liam tells him to put on pants, shows his general casualness and comfort. The pants he dons, by the way, are basketball shorts. Poiesz also shows attention to detail by having the ski tags remain on Liam and Melody’s coats.

Glen Sears has created a easily believable Upper West Side apartment, complete with the kind of chandelier and knick-knacks you know Liam and Jonah’s mother would choose for her sons.

Christopher Colucci’s sound design adds to the authenticity of the apartment and its Riverside Drive locale.

“Bad Jews” runs through Sunday, November 30, in Independence Studio on 3 of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Thanksgiving, Nov. 27, but a special 2:30 p.m. matinee is set for Friday, Nov. 28. Tickets range from $45 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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