Katrina. Irene. Sandy. Daphna. Ok, Daphna may not be an actual meteorological storm, but as played by the stupendous Tracee Chimo in Joshua Harmon’s disturbingly funny
Bad Jews at the Roundabout Underground, this human maelstrom does more damage to the inhabitants of an Upper West Side apartment than any real hurricane ever has. In fact, given the intimacy of this black-box theater, you may want to tape yourself up with wooden boards before entering.
As Daphna loudly proclaims her Jewishness, flaunts the existence of her never-seen Israeli boyfriend, and, above all, fights for the right to inherit her beloved grandfather’s gold Chai — a religious medallion he miraculously managed to keep hidden during his two years in a concentration camp — nothing in her path is safe.
As it happens, Daphna (nee Diana) is primed for destruction from moment one — roaring through Lauren Helpern’s perfectly-designed studio apartment — incensed that her older cousin Liam (the excellent Michael Zegen) has managed to miss their beloved grandfather’s funeral because he was skiing in Aspen (and somehow lost his phone).
And once Liam arrives with his milquetoasty if good-hearted shiksa (non-Jewish) girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson, making the most of an underdeveloped role that practically screams “plot device”), things go from bad to worse. Everything and everyone Daphna touches — from a coffee cake to Liam’s younger sweeter, and none-too-bright brother Jonah (an effective Philip Ettinger) — ends up as collateral damage or worse.
Harmon is smart enough not to leave Daphna unscathed. Liam gives almost as good as he gets, delivering his blows with the force of a seasoned prizefigher. But ultimately, Harmon’s sympathies don’t really lie with Liam either; he’s shown to be a classic JAP (Jewish American Prince), albeit in Brooks Brothers clothing, who is revealed to have little true concern for anyone’s feelings — Melody’s and Jonah’s included.
If Harmon’s gift for the perfect one-liner and the stinging barb consistently impresses, so does his feel for family dynamics. From the cousins’ shared hilarity over a long-ago dinner at Benihana to the just-simmering-below-the-surface resentments that come up for a needed breath of air, Harmon captures those singular moments that bond and break people who share blood and memories.
True, a situation here and there rings false (or merely convenient), but even at its weakest, his writing shows promise. Equally important, Harmon asks us to think about the courage of our own convictions — religious and otherwise — as well as the cost of cowardice, jealousy, and sheer pettiness.
Whether Bad Jews would work quite as well in a production without Chimo, who has been expertly guided by director Daniel Aukin, is strictly hypothetical at this point. All I know is that although this consummate actress has shown us both toxicity (in Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette) and vulnerability (in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation) before, she takes both qualities to extremes here. It’s a balancing act that threatens to throw her –and us — off balance, but even after the winds have died down, Daphna (and Chimo) are left standing.