“Bad Jews,” at the Roundabout, begins with a familiar scene of New York apartment envy and ends 100 minutes later with more blood on the floor than “Hamlet.”
Daphna Feygenbaum is sleeping over at her cousin Jonah’s sweet Upper West Side studio apartment. It’s down the hall from his parents; they’ve gathered for the funeral of their beloved grandfather.
The fact that Daphna can see the Hudson River even from the bathroom is enough to set her off.
It doesn’t take much to provoke Daphna, brilliantly played by Tracee Chimo with a mix of smugness and passion. She’s tapped into her Jewishness with a vengeance, planning to become a rabbi, move to Israel to marry her fiance and join the army.
Jonah (Philip Ettinger) could care less. But when his older brother, Liam, arrives with his blank Gentile girlfriend, Melody, Daphna works herself -- and the rest of them -- into a lather.
Liam (Michael Zegen) is working toward a doctorate in Japanese cultural studies. He has nothing but contempt for what he describes as an ancient, sexist religion.
At stake is the gold “chai” -- the Hebrew word for “life” -- their grandfather kept even through two years in a concentration camp. Daphna wants it. Liam not only has it, he plans to give it to Melody (Molly Ranson, mousily sweet) when he proposes.
Daphna is oblivious to feelings hurt in the name of truth-telling. Liam is the soul of assimilation, unable to embrace the irony of his intellectual and romantic pursuits.
Written by Joshua Harmon and staged with exemplary fury by Daniel Aukin, “Bad Jews” is a fine example of a play that works even when almost nothing about it is believable. Impossible to imagine why, for example, Liam and Melody haven’t beat a hasty exit within five minutes of their arrival.
But Harmon has the good sense to make Liam and Daphna intellectual equals. Their increasingly nasty arguments will be discomfiting to anyone who has struggled with the issue of religious enfranchisement.
The playwright stacks the deck too heavily against one of the contenders. He loses control of the story, not knowing how to end the play in a satisfying way.
But “Bad Jews” is another scorching provocation from the Roundabout’s Black Box series, where all tickets are $20. You get way more than your money’s worth.
Through Dec. 16 at the Roundabout Black Box Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundaboutunderground.org. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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