Reviewed by Julio Martinez
Theatre of NOTE
Through July 24
Playwright Joshua Harmon’s flawed exercise in contemporary tribal warfare pits two young and privileged Jewish-American cousins — Daphna (Sigi Gradwohl) and Liam (Jordan Wall) — against each other, utilizing an arsenal of self-serving and often delusional epithets that results in an underwhelming dramatic payoff for the 90 minutes spent in their company. The fault is in the writing, not in the relentlessly committed in-your-face portrayals by Gradwohl and Wall, as well as the supportive if underdeveloped outings of Liam’s brother Jonah (Tyler Alverson) and his not-too-bright non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Hilary Curwen). Sabrina Lloyd’s direction properly underscores the Daphna/Liam vitriolic pas de deux, but fails to establish a cohesive dramatic through-line to bolster Harmon’s inconsistent plot.
Harmon leads off with the implausible scenario that Liam and Jonah have to share their wealthy parents’ “spare” upscale Manhattan studio flat with their cousin Daphna on the occasion of their grandfather’s funeral. (I guess no one could afford a hotel room.) The addition of Melody, Liam’s ladylove, makes for even tighter quarters and helps facilitate the open warfare that ensues. Designer Chad Phillips’ awkwardly wrought apartment setting, dominated by the full-size fold-down bed placed in the middle of the action, often forces Liam and Daphna to wail at each other from across the room, while Jonah and Melody make themselves as invisible as possible in whatever space is available.
Gradwohl’s Daphna, a Vassar senior whose birth name is actually Diana, is an amazing study in self-invention, conducting herself as an “über-Jew” who rails against the inadequacies of others. Despite Liam’s sneering assertion that his cousin is a phony —“wishing she were this, like, barbed-wire-hopping, Uzi-toting Israeli warlock superhero” — Daphna’s jaundiced assessments of society’s inadequacies are well thought out and imbued with devastating wit, made even more cogent by Gradwohl’s powerhouse, rapid-fire delivery. Her Daphna actually beams when she hones in on any weaknesses or insecurities she observes in others.
Wall’s Liam is a worthy combatant but is often done in by his uncontrollable anger towards his cousin. His ire at Daphna’s penchant for combing her overflowing hair any place she wants actually reduces the discourse of this supposedly intellectually transcendent doctoral candidate to infantile babble. Where Wall’s portrayal does rise to the occasion is when Daphna challenges Liam for possession of their grandfather’s treasured ornament, a golden Chai (chai means “living”) medallion that had survived the Holocaust with the old man. The focused rage of this normally non-religious young Jew rises to formidable biblical ferocity.
Jonah and Melody are minor but welcome players in this foursome. Alverson invests Jonah with an aura of introspective discomfort as he attempts to sidestep the uncompromising agendas hurled at him from his demanding brother and needy cousin. Although Alverson manages to establish Jonah as a tangibly sympathetic character, the playwright has not provided him with enough substance to make viable Jonah’s all-important play-closing revelation.
Curwen is appealing as the intellectually uncomplicated Melody who tries to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. Her even-keeled temperament flows right over the reams of personal insults thrown her way by Daphna. It is actually a relief to witness Melody’s façade finally crumble after Daphna goes one step too far.
Bad Jews is a problematic but colorful work, populated with entertaining characters who are portrayed by a competent cast not always served well by the playwright or Lloyd’s direction. One particular low point occurs when it is revealed that Melody had been an opera major but chose, after college, to work for a non-profit as an administrator. When Daphna asks her to sing, the ensuing two full choruses of “Summertime” are so mind-numbingly awful that it calls into question the playwright’s knowledge of collegiate-level musical education and the director’s decision to allow anything this grotesque-sounding to go on for so long. This is when Daphna’s usually quickly dissenting voice was sorely needed.
Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 24; (310) 502-0086 or www.badjewsinhollywood.com. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.