Chicago Theater Review: BAD JEWS (Royal George)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 3, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Bad Jews (the provocative title not as anti-Semitic as it sounds) was a 2015 hit at London’s St. James and New York’s Roundabout theaters. In the Chicago area Jeremy Wechsler’s staging has already packed them in at Theater Wit, Northlight Theatre, and now the Royal George Cabaret. Clearly, Bad Jews found its chosen audience–and fast. Maybe it’s because Joshua Harmon’s one-act can really be called Mad Jews: Anger, not faith, fuels this 100-minute fracas. It’s like watching a conversational car wreck–and not in slow motion.

BAD JEWS (Royal George in Chicago)

Crude, rude and sometimes lewd, Harmon’s outspoken dark comedy pits firebrand Jewish cousins against each other, with two more loved ones caught in the cultural crossfire. The result is a more than spirited debate (one that’s bound to pay off in post-show arguments) about the peril and promise of choosing love over faith. What happens, Harmon loudly inquires, when religion not only doesn’t have all the answers–but seems part of the problem? Nothing pretty–certainly no more so than this summer’s recent regrettable introduction of public showers at Auschwitz to beat the Polish heat. (Oops!)

BAD JEWS (Royal George in Chicago)

The setting (claustrophobically conveyed by set designer Adam Veness) is a lavish condo overlooking the Hudson River, purchased as a “spare apartment” by rich parents for brothers Liam (Ian Paul Custer) and Jonah (Cory Kahane) Feygenbaum. The occasion is a terrible loss: Their beloved grandfather “Poppy,” a survivor of the death camps, has passed. Reclaiming his legacy as they’ve lost his love, the clan has reassembled to say Shiva.

BAD JEWS (Royal George in Chicago)

Except that Liam, who was in college during the patriarch’s sickness, has missed the funeral because he was skiing in Aspen with his blonde shiksa girlfriend Melody (Kelly O’Sullivan). This dereliction absolutely enrages their poorer cousin Daphna (Laura Lapidus), a righteous relative now at Vassar and supposedly engaged to an Israeli soldier. A “true Jew,” motor-mouthed, bitchy Daphna–a self-declared rabbinical student–is present as much to torment atheist Liam for Feygenbaum faithlessness as to mourn Poppy.


Daphna also aches to claim a precious heirloom and keepsake–survivor Poppy’s precious Chai necklace (a religious pendant symbolizing life)–which he kept throughout the Holocaust. To the devilishly demure, archly manipulative Daphna, this male ornament belongs to the most devout descendant regardless of sex or seniority. She will do–and certainly say–anything to get it. (It’s tempting to compare the Chai piece to Rose’s diamond-encrusted “Heart of the Ocean” necklace that bogus-ly fuels the pell-mell action in the 1996 film Titanic.)

BAD JEWS (Royal George in Chicago)So, when Melody and Liam finally arrive, recriminations detonate: Daphna eviscerates “inferior” Melody, a failed opera singer now working for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, for her truly terrible singing (of a certain famous Jewish composer’s “Summertime”)–and even for profiting from Delaware’s “genocide” of native Americans. Sarcastic-to-savage Daphna’s diatribe reaches bottom as she condemns the Irish-named Liam for sleeping with the enemy. He’s a traitor to the Torah, a mocker of Shiva who prefers cultural studies of “contemporary Japanese youth” to the faith of his fathers and would be more respectful during an indigenous “Rain dance” than the Hora. Like the milkman Tevya, Daphna fears that Liam’s marrying outside Judaism will water down religion and betray the untold sacrifices of unsung ancestors.

BAD JEWS (Royal George in Chicago)Not one to hold back hate, Liam counters with equally venomous castigations as he claims his right to both respect and the Chai treasure. He flings graphic insults based on Daphna’s past transgressions, even questions her devotion to Gilad in Jerusalem. Worse, he attacks her belief as adherence to Old Testament ignorance and bigotry. She is faithful to folly.

The performances, targeted like lasers, are so vitriolic that Theater Wit’s quartet deserves combat pay. And, of course, Bad Jews cannot end well. To his credit Harmon attempts no phony reconciliation. The audience is all but forced to choose sides–as must poor, ambushed Melody, her passion for Liam tested to the max, and forlorn Jonah, his fervent desire to stay out of this family feud as sad as it gets. Nothing subtle spoils this feeding frenzy of internecine warfare. This verbal bloodbath is only entertaining from a safe distance.


photos by Charles Osgood

Bad Jews
presented by Theater Wit
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
ends on October 4, 2015
EXTENDED to December 27, 2015
for tickets, call 312.988.9000 or visit Theater Wit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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