SPT’s production of “Bad Jews” delivers a mixed bag of entertainment. The one-act play by young Julliard graduate student Joshua Harmon features a solid premise and potentially fascinating characters, but fails to earn some of the intense conflicts it throws at us. It does present what must be one of the most dynamic performances this season from SPT rookie, Anna Kasabyan. Her monologues recall the breath taking bitter humor of the iconic Lenny Bruce. Her riveting, laser-focused performance is worth a trip to Green Lake to see.
Harmon sets his play in a New York apartment and has three millennial-age cousins meeting on the evening after their grandfather’s funeral. The opening banter between Daphna and her somewhat spacey cousin Jonah (Ben Phillips) echoes Neil Simon; a sharp rhythm filled with funny one-line jokes set up most of the exposition. The two are awaiting the arrival of Jonah’s brother Liam (Ian Bond).
Daphna, who sees herself as a “Real Jew” has branded Liam a “Bad Jew. “ He missed the grandfather’s funeral because he dropped his cell phone on a ski trip in Colorado. She remembers him joyfully eating a cookie during the Passover season right in front of her. Jews are not supposed to eat leavened breads during this holiday. And finally Liam is bringing his gentile girlfriend, Melody (Molli Corcoran) with him back to the apartment. As the unbending Daphna sees it: three strikes and he’s out.
The play’s main conflict centers upon Daphna’s strong desire to inherit her grandfather’s chai necklace. He was a holocaust survivor and she wants to honor his memory by wearing it. Liam is in possession of the jewelry and for reasons of his own, has no intention of giving it up.
Liam indeed arrives with the blond Melody in tow, and it takes very little time for the fireworks to start. Herein lies the problem with the play. Some of the shouting and anger seem too quickly manifested and merely a dramatic ploy, occasionally turning the dialogue into high energy speechifying. Liam and Daphna do have strongly differing approaches to their young lives and the characters could easily be further explored to discover why they harbor such animosity toward each other, but much of that task doesn’t happen in the script.
Harmon has a lot to work with here and the entire question of what does it mean to be a Jew in the dizzying days of the early 21st century is certainly worth answering. I hope he returns to this script to flesh out what he has so far.
The play does offer a warm respite from the bitter confrontations when the three cousins take a break from their sparring to remember a particular funny scene their families shared years ago with their grandparents. The laughing engendered here is honest and contagious.
Harmon’s characters are never boring and he often has them speak in overlapping half sentences that render a very natural feel to the quieter moments of the work. But it is Anna Kasabyan’s work, as the volatile Daphna, that makes it all worth it.
Shana Bestock directs “Bad Jews” at the Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse Theater on Green Lake. Richard Schaefer is responsible for building the good looking set depicting a New York apartment. The show runs through October 25. Tickets are available by calling 206-524-1300 or visiting www.seattlepublictheater.org.