NEW YORK — Yorick’s skull. Chekhov’s gun. Daphna Feygenbaum’s split ends?
Indeed, by the end of the ninety uninterrupted and increasingly intense minutes of Joshua Harmon’s play “Bad Jews” (currently extended through mid-December at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York) the robust, frenzied mop atop the opinionated and deeply troubled Vassar student mourning the death of her grandfather and readying to make aliyah stands out as a bold and resonant symbol. A symbol of what, of course, is open to interpretation.
“Bad Jews” is a play all about symbols, with two rivals in a tug-of-war over a Chai, the Jewish symbol of life so frequently worn by (mostly) men on a chain. This particular Chai was worn by Poppy, a Holocaust survivor who hid it under his tongue during his entire time in the camps. When he came to America and was too poor to buy a ring he used it to propose to his wife (a woman nobody liked, but that’s not important right now). Now Poppy is dead and the fight for that Chai is the greatest battle for a trinket since “Lord of the Rings.”
Daphna thinks she should get the Chai. After all, she’s the only observant Jew left among the three grandchildren. She’s also from the poor side of the family – the only child of schoolteachers.
Daphna’s cousin Liam is the eldest male heir. Inertia grants the Chai to him. More importantly, he actually has it in his possession, as he was planning to use it to propose to his girlfriend during a ski trip in Aspen – a trip that was interrupted by Poppy’s death.
The girlfriend is Melody, a Dutch-Irish (maybe?) blonde gentile from Delaware. “It doesn’t matter to me that you are Jewish,” Melody says in a kind, albeit somewhat dopey manner.
“Well it matters to me!” barks back Daphna, a tornado of misappropriated anger who, from time to time, actually has a point.
“Now, when it’s easiest and safest to be Jewish, we should just stop?” She drops this question like ten tons of bitter maror, silencing the cramped Riverside Drive apartmeLiam, a PhD candidate in Japanese cultural studies, isn’t just unobservant, he jokes about being a “bad Jew.”
Between the warring cousins is Liam’s sweet but not-exactly-bright younger brother Jonah, who will do anything to just “not get involved.”
The fight for that Chai is the greatest battle for a trinket since ‘Lord of the Rings’
It doesn’t work that way, of course, and as the evening grows into one enormous argument about what it means to be a Jew, a final revelation about the seemingly non-partisan Jonah left this audience member thunderstruck, blubbering and basically unable to get out of his seat.
In all, a good night at the theater — but also an uncomfortable one.
When Daphna makes a comment about “this being the last thing I say” a heckler in the audience called back “thank God!” I have a hunch it wasn’t the first time.
Daphna, brilliantly played by Tracee Chimo (best known as Neri on “Orange is the New Black”) is a force of nature. We all know this girl – a Semitic Lisa Simpson, a know it all, fearless, quick-tempered and often belligerent. This is not to say she can’t be caring or convivial. And it only takes a moment to recognize this is a young woman in a great deal of pain, unsure of her identity and fraught with insecurities. It isn’t long into the play we learn that Daphna, who speaks of her boyfriend Gilad in the IDF, was actually known as Diana for most of her life.
This all may sound heavy and, indeed, to 21st Century Jews in the Diaspora there are moments that will feel like a punch to the chest – but Harmon’s play is also rather funny.
There are Abraham Foxman jokes and people arguing while pound cake spews out of their mouths. There’s also a great gag where the would-be opera singer Melody mangles music in a way I’ve never heard on a Broadway stage before. (And it has to be Gershwin, just to twist the knife in a little.)
At one point Liam tries to swat away Daphna’s argument as a mere late night Vassar dormitory debate. It’s to Harmon’s credit that he’d be comfortable keeping this in-story rejection in there. But anyone with a smidgen of cultural awareness, an eye for drama and an ear for good dialogue will recognize that this is vital material. You don’t have to be a Jewish to catch the potency of what’s going – the themes of diluted identity and fractured families are universal even if the particulars are specific to the Jewish experience.
“Bad Jews” is, in my opinion, the finest work about Jewish assimilation I’ve come across since Philip Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America.” And if there’s ever a topic I’m on the prowl for, believe me, it’s this. Whether that makes me a bad or good Jew is open to debate.