At times while watching Bad Jews, a new comedy running at Roundabout's Off Broadway Laura Pels Theatre through Dec. 15, I was reminded of the story of the Four Sons that's told during the Passover Seder. There is the wise one, the evil one, the simple one, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask questions. These Jews of the Haggadah are put in clearly drawn boxes, with very little wiggle room to add nuance. Likewise, the title of Joshua Harmon’s wonderful play seems to imply a similarly precise judgment will be passed onto one-note characters. But the sharp writing and wonderful performances unpack characters who are anything but.
The intermissionless play opens in an Upper West Side studio apartment that despite great Hudson River views (from the bathroom, no less!) is claustrophobically filled with multiple mattresses and non-stop talker Daphna Feygenbaum (Tracee Chimo). She’s crashing at her cousin Jonah’s (Philip Ettinger) pad while in town for the funeral of their beloved grandfather. Jonah, seemingly the ''simple'' one who twitches about the apartment when he feels uncomfortable, is more interested in placating Daphna than engaging in her incessant yammering. She appears to be the wise one, a senior at Vassar who wants to go to rabbinical school in Israel and eventually marry her Israel Defense Forces boyfriend, Gilad.
The cousin's discuss their grandfather’s ''chai,'' a gold necklace containing a charm that spells out the Hebrew word that means ''life.'' Daphna considers herself a good Jew (so good that she changed her name from Diana!) and thinks her devotion to their faith means she should inherit the necklace.
Little does she know, the chai is already in the hands of Jonah’s brother, Liam (Michael Zegen), who arrives at the apartment hours after the funeral with his girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson). As in, his un-Jewish-as-they-come, Talbots-wearing, tattooed, my-people-are-from-Delaware girlfriend. Who would date her but the ''evil'' one?
It doesn’t take long for the battle over Papi’s chai to erupt. Daphna spews vile insults at Liam and Melody with the rat-a-tat-tat of her boyfriend’s Uzi. She’s a human tornado, right down to her uncontrollable hair. (All hail the exceptional Chimo, who deserves each and every award she’s won for this role in its staging last year at the tiny black-box Roundabout Underground.) Liam isn’t any better, shrieking at his cousin and reducing his girlfriend to tears. When the chai is finally brought out, the moment is so powerful the audience at the performance I attended actually gasped. Credit Harmon for turning the final moments which are equal parts tragic, sad, disturbing, and moving into the kind of ending that doesn’t easily answer any questions. B+