NJT’s darkly comic ‘Bad Jews’ is thought-provoking, explosive

Antonio Rodriguez and Em Piro in ‘Bad Jews.’ Photo: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Joshua Harmon’s explosive dark comedy “Bad Jews” is given a full-throated, thought-provoking turn in the New Jewish Theatre’s second production of the season.  

Splendidly directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, with strong performances by all four of the actors, “Bad Jews” is a nonstop, complicated battle among three members of a Jewish family for a precious chai necklace, which their Poppy had received from his father at a Nazi death camp. 

The grandkids gather at the large New York City Upper West Side apartment that one of them has inherited to sit shiva for their precious Poppy, whose funeral was earlier that day.

In a whirlwind of family score-settling, sarcasm and escalating hurtfulness, the three grandchildren tear at each other through most of the 90-minute play, which is performed without an intermission.  

The grandchildren are Jonah Haber (Pete Winfrey), who tries to stay below the radar of his conflict-ridden family;  Jonah’s older brother Liam Haber (Antonio Rodriguez), a highly secularized, self-described Jewish-born atheist; and their first cousin Daphna Feygenbaum (Em Piro), who says whatever pops into her mind no matter how inappropriate or even destructive it might be.  

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Liam has brought along his blonde, blue-eyed Christian girlfriend, Melody (Taylor Steward), who bravely tries to navigate the roiling waters of the dysfunctional family quarrels.  

Daphna covets the precious chai necklace, which Poppy gave to his wife in lieu of a wedding ring. She considers herself an “authentic” Jew and is deeply resentful of Liam’s mocking tone at Passover seders or whenever anything “seriously Jewish” comes up.

Piro is especially strong as Daphna, who combines a hurtful, emotional knife-wielding personality with an authentic commitment to respecting Jewish tradition.  She deeply covets the chai necklace, insisting it is the only item among Poppy’s belongings that she really wants.  But it turns out that Liam believes he has a prior claim on the necklace, insisting Poppy had promised to give it to him since he was a small boy.  

As Liam and Daphna engage in a relentless tug-of-war for possession of the necklace, the hapless Jonah insists he does not want to get involved in the dispute.  Meanwhile, Melody is caught in the middle as Daphna and Liam face off in a volatile shouting match.

Because of the white-hot anger displayed by the characters during the course of the play, some of the darkly humorous lines were hard to catch as they were spoken.

Steward is convincing as Melody, who is clearly in love with Liam but is shocked by his constantly erupting anger at Daphna. Rodriquez captures the essence of the conflicted Liam, while Winfrey is believable as the more passive and ambivalent Jonah.

The production is enhanced by, among others, the excellent work of Dunsi Dai’s scenic design and Kimberly Klearman’s lighting.

“Bad Jews” is good theater, with a compelling story, characters the audience can care about and a strong mix of comedy and drama.