Studio Theatre’s ‘Bad Jews’ is funny, thought provoking

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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teddy Wolff) 

If you find the title “Bad Jews” off-putting, that’s precisely what Playwright Joshua Harmon is aiming for. Go ahead. Feel uncomfortable. But you’ll laugh your head off while you’re squirming in your seat.

Three college-age cousins are gathered in the Manhattan apartment of Liam and Jonah for the funeral of their grandfather, Poppy. In this funny-cause-it’s-true comedy they debate, denigrate and question each other over who has the right to have Poppy’s “chai,” a chain on which hangs the Jewish symbol for life. Which one of them is most deserving of its ownership?  Which one of them is more Jewish? Who is the True Believer? Each offers a salient argument to the age-old question.

Daphna (Irene Sofia Lucio), a young woman with plans to take up rabbinical studies in Jaifa and later enlist in the Israeli Army, thinks she should have it since she is the most religious and insists her cousins respect the sacrifices that Poppy made to safeguard it during his internment in a concentration camp.

Jonah (Joe Paulik) is insistent that, by tradition, it should go to the eldest son — especially since he wants to gift it to his WASP girlfriend Melody (Maggie Erwin) as a symbol of his love, in the same way their grandfather presented it to their grandmother upon their engagement.

Liam (Alex Mandell), Jonah’s brother and a video game addict, is non-committal, determined to stay out of the fray while all hell breaks loose around him. He calls himself a “Bad Jew” for eating cookies on Passover and considers himself an atheist, leaving the debate to Jonah and Daphna, whom Jonah angrily refers to as “the Super Jew” for wanting to observe the most Orthodox interpretation of Jewish tradition.

There is so much vitriol flying around for the sake of determining the “best” Jew that the audience literally gasped and groaned in shock — not only because of the meanness demonstrated by Daphna and Liam but also the brutal honesty on issues that can be ignored, hotly debated or even fervently embraced.

There is nothing facile in here. It is riveting and hilarious in its presentation and the actors do a bang-up job interpreting their roles.

Director Serge Seiden has a firm grip on the action, setting the characters in constant motion and keeping the pace locked and loaded for the next brawling barb.

“Bad Jews” is honest and thought-provoking, hilarious and ripe for discussion.

“Bad Jews” runs through December 21 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

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