Bad Jews, LA
Raviv Ullman and Molly Ephraim in "Bad Jews"
© Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont

Bad Jews, LA

If you can bear it, this 90-minute play is a crash-course in religious zealotry.

By Joshua Harmon

Directed by Matt Shakman

With Raviv Ullman, Molly Ephraim, Ari Brand, and Lili Fuller

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles

June 9 – July 26, 2015

“Oy, such a shreier,” my immigrant grandfather would have said of Daphna Feygenbaum (Molly Ephraim), the lead in the Geffen Playhouse production of "Bad Jews.' “Vy vould you vant to spend the evening listening to such a voman?” Good question, Grandpa.

Here is the setup: Poppy, grandfather of Daphna, and her two first cousins, Jonah Haber (Raviv Ullman) and Liam Haber (Ari Brand), has died. The rest of his family was killed in the Holocaust, but he survived, hiding his chai (a small gold charm meaning "life" or the number 18 in Hebrew) under his tongue. He gave it to their grandmother as an engagement present when he could not afford a ring. It is a story all his grandchildren know, but of which Daphna claims particular ownership; only she is entitled to inherit it. Only she has a genuine connection with being Jewish, and the Holocaust. No one else is as entitled as she: she will tell you; you need not ask. The gist of the story, such as it is, is which grandchild will inherit the chai. Funerals are often fraught with idolization of the deceased shot through with family dissension and competition. Poppy's family has an over abundance of both.

It is the day of Poppy's funeral. Jonah, a high school senior, and Daphna, a Vassar senior, have been cooped up in the Haber's extra studio-cum-guestroom apartment. Jonah has been surviving her onslaughts by drowning himself in computer games and giving monosyllabic answers if he speaks to her at all. Older brother, Liam, a University of Chicago graduate student, was skiing in Aspen with his vapid, blond, shiksa girlfriend when Poppy died. He missed the funeral, having gotten the news late as he (improbably) lost his phone on a ski lift and neglected to call home to check on the status of his comatose grandfather. Can you imagine the indignation of entitled, super-Jew Daphna?

I do not care who you are, what your beliefs are, or what your history with her is, you do not want to be sharing a studio apartment with self-righteous Daphna, the self-appointed arbiter of what it means to be Jewish, what is the proper way to honor the memory of the Holocaust, and just about everything else you can think of. Not even for a single night. Liam has listened to her holier-than-thou diatribes for years.

When he learns they are roommates he is armed and ready to dump his load on Daphna. By definition, zealots of any religion are not known for their tolerance of the opinions of others. Pair zealotry with brains and a terrific vocabulary and you have a toxic mix. Not content to let Joshua Harmon's writing show Daphna's mean, envious, judgmental spirit, director Matt Shakman has Ephraim delivering her lines non-stop at a range approaching that which only a dog could truly appreciate. For that matter, girlfriend Melody (Lili Fuller), the mousey fulfillment of every Jewish boy's shiksa fantasy, delivers her vapid lines at what can only be described as a squeak. Harmon has written caricatures; Shakman has delivered stereotypes. Brand says his lines at a similar speed and ferocity, but fortunately at a normal pitch. As a result the male actors come off as more real than females. In London the venom in "Bad Jews" was compared to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf." I cannot imagine "Virginia Wolf" being delivered with such over-the-top pacing.

The premise of "Bad Jews" is interesting, but I found 90 minutes of Daphna almost more than I could bear. Grandpa had a good point, and I do not think Poppy would have been very happy with his two older grandchildren, either.

Karen Weinstein

Los Angeles ,
Weinstein is a clinical psychologist who teaches in the medical school at UCLA. She also holds a master's degree in Urban Studies and has a strong interest in history and architecture, as well as the theater.