“Can we just take a second to assess these matzo balls?” asks playwright Joshua Harmon over a bowl of soup at the famed Café Edison.
“I love them,” replies Tracee Chimo, one of the four stars of Harmon’s critically acclaimed, biting dark comedy Bad Jews, currently running at Roundabout Underground through December 30. “This is my favorite matzo ball soup in the City.”
“They’re very fluffy,” Harmon concludes. “I like a more-packed matzo ball. That’s what I come from. But I don’t want to be misquoted: this is good soup.”
“I’m open to both,” interjects Michael Zegen, who, eight times a week, goes head-to-head with Chimo’s frizzy-haired Daphna Feygenbaum as her slightly older cousin, Liam Haber. “I don’t discriminate.”
Molly Ranson, who plays Liam’s shiksa girlfriend Melody, and Philip Ettinger, who plays Liam’s brother Jonah, have also joined us for this matzo ball soup klatch on a recent rainy Tuesday at the Edison. What better way to discuss food, family, and a play called Bad Jews than over soup (and stuffed cabbage, and chopped liver, natch)?
It’s Chimo, the only goy in the group, who ordered the chopped liver. “But I came from a very Eastern European family,” the actress insists, “so food was a big deal, and the closeness of the relatives was a big deal. That’s what I found most relatable in this play: I connected with the family aspect of it.”
Everyone at the table nods. They specifically relate to the fighting. Harmon’s play finds Daphna and Liam entangled in a dangerous, potentially relationship-ending squabble over their recently deceased, Holocaust-surviving grandfather’s prized Chai necklace.
“My family is prone to arguments on every holiday,” says Ettinger. “It actually makes me feel more comfortable when there’s yelling going on.”
“Every time my family gets together, there is a fight,” Zegen adds. “I can’t single out any one in particular, because they all sort-of go together.”
“My mom’s side is straight-up, one-hundred-percent Italian, and they scream all the time,” Chimo boasts. There is no talking to each other in that house. I actually don’t go there very often because they’re nightmares.”
In this case, Ranson is the hold-out. “My family is very kind of peaceful,” she says, between bites of stuffed cabbage. “I have a very quiet Jewish side of the family – not quiet, but they don’t scream at each other.”
Harmon, currently a student in Julliard’s playwriting program, insists inspiration for the comedy did not come from close to home. “It’s not based on my family,” he asserts. “But you pull from stuff.”
In reality, it seems like he might have inadvertently pulled from Ettinger’s life. “My dad actually has a Chai necklace that his grandfather wore, who actually survived the Holocaust,” he says. “He wears it every day.”
“And you went through every rehearsal without telling us that,” Harmon scolds. “His dad came to the show and was like ‘Has Phil told you about this?’ and we’re like ‘No!'”
“And he pulls out this big Chai,” Chimo adds through laughs. “And we were all like ‘wow, really!?'”
Zegen relates one of his family’s stories of lore. “My grandfather [who was a Holocaust survivor] discovered years after that his brother had survived [also], and then they met up, and apparently had a fight, and then they never talked to each other ever again.”
But we don’t need to worry about fighting at our table. In fact, the cast and playwright get along so well they’re practically mishpucha. (The night before our lunch date, they all attended the Big Apple Circus.) During rehearsals, they gathered for a dinner that Harmon himself cooked.
“Food is a tradition,” Zegen adds. “My grandma and my grandfather are big into soup. My older brother has taken the mantle in that.”
“My father is Albanian,” Chimo shares as she spreads chopped liver onto crackers for everyone to taste. “There was a lot of Albanian and Greek food that my family ate.”
Ranson jumps in to share her family’s food traditions: “We always search for the Matzo every year [on Passover], we put out wine for Elijah…”
Ettinger almost steps on her sentence: “So you do the Afikomen? There are two separate ways: one where you hide it from the kids and they find it, or the one where the kids steal it? That’s how I grew up doing it. The kids steal it and it’s like a negotiation.”
Chimo doesn’t get it.
“Somebody hides [a specific piece of matzo] and the kids have to find it, and you get money,” Zegen explains.
“It’s the silliest thing ever,” Harmon notes. “You sell it back to your parents for money. You learn negotiation skills!”
Chimo finally understands. “It sounds like your version of the Easter egg hunt!”
“I used to [sing the Four Questions at Passover] every year, and I would get so nervous,” Ranson says.
“I would always make my little brother laugh while he was doing it,” Zegen replies proudly. “I would make faces and he would crack up!”
At this point, the waiter begins to clear plates and the conversation winds down. Since Bad Jews is a comedy, naturally the question about favorite Jewish comedians comes up.
“I like Larry David,” Ranson notes.
“Woody Allen is my favorite!” exclaims Chimo.
“Sarah Silverman has an amazing joke,” Harmon begins. “[She] says ‘I was raped by a doctor…which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.'”
The entire table, save for the one who ordered the chopped liver, giggles with glee.
Chimo looks puzzled. “I don’t get it,” she says.
“Jewish mothers are always trying to get their daughters to marry doctors,” Harmon explains.
“My mother always wanted me to marry a doctor,” she replies. “Is that a Jewish thing?”