A unique set of verbal explosions ignites in Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews, Roundabout Theatre Company's horrifying-funny season opener at off-Broadway's Laura Pels Theatre. Graduating to the big room after a sold-out run last fall in the organization's Black Box space hasn't dulled the sharp blade of this impressive debut drama, which has only gotten stronger in the year since its debut.
The central argument here is over the possession of a Chai necklace, a good-luck symbol that survived the Holocaust and belonged to Poppy, the now-deceased grandfather of cousins Daphna (Tracee Chimo), Liam (Michael Zegen), and Jonah (Philip Ettinger). With Poppy gone, the frizzy-haired, acid-tongued Daphna believes that she is the ornament's rightful possessor; after all, she is the most Jewish of her cousins, and why would they care about this sort of thing anyway? But Liam, with whom Daphna has never gotten along, has his own plan for the memento, involving his shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson), who has journeyed to New York City with him to attend the Shiva. (They were skiing in Aspen and missed the funeral.)
From there, the fireworks (and stomach-hurting belly laughs, the kind that can only come from watching people be mean to one another) launch and don't let up. Daniel Aukin's production, transferred upstairs intact, might be missing some of the intimacy it had in the basement space, but that is not detrimental to this black comedy. In fact, the year-long break has only strengthened the work. For starters, it's shorter — only by about ten minutes, but it's now hit the perfect length. The actors are still top notch, delivering volatile performances that are now more recognizably human. But most importantly, the character of Daphna has undergone a transformation, and it's not just a switch in Dane Laffrey's impressively schlumpy costumes.
In the Black Box, Daphna was a monster, a volcano exploding relentlessly cruel lava that landed on everything in its path, prowling around Lauren Helpern's set, a coolly bland contemporary Manhattan studio, like a lion ready to pounce on dinner. Her acrimony nearly became caricature by the end, with Liam, Daphna's adversary and antagonist, coming out on top only because Daphna was so clearly just a bad person. Chimo was great at spitting that fire, but now she is extraordinarily injecting real humanity into the character. Her meanness isn't just for the sake of being mean; it's a defense mechanism that has stemmed from years of being the punching bag.
As a result, it balances out the piece. If you rooted for Liam downstairs, now you might question that decision. He seems just as wrong as his cousin, and Zegen has nicely modulated his unapologetic performance to go head-to-head with Chimo. As Jonah, Ettinger is quieter and less broody than before, but it doesn't detract from his expertly dry delivery and impressively awkward physicality. Even Ranson, who did what she could with the "standard Shiksa girlfriend" character, has found a unique way into the role, and she has a moment that becomes one of the unforgettable laugh riots of the season.
You don't need to be Jewish to "get" Bad Jews — Harmon has crafted a universal story. If you've ever gotten into a fight with your cousin at the Thanksgiving table or slugged your mother over dinner — and who hasn't? — you're bound to recognize some aspect of yourself in this play. And if theater really is all about, as Hamlet says, holding the mirror up to nature, that realization is the reason your hands will be shaking as you get on the subway.