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Bad Jews

"If I marry her, she's part of our family. What belongs to our family will belong to her. And the chai would be the bedrock of two marriages of two generations of people in our family. Grandma wasn't part of Poppy's family when he gave her the chai. It's the same thing." — Liam
Bad Jews
Tracee Chimo and Michael Zegen )
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
What could be more wonderful than opening a small black box and finding within it a precious little gem? You can find such a gem in The Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Theater. Even with its very bad but very apt title, Bad Jews is one of the most entertaining and exuberantly discursive plays of the fall season.

A terrific, young cast, under the direction of Daniel Aukin (who recently earned praise for helming Sam Shepard's Heartless and Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles) has instilled an invigorating vitality into this fiercely funny new play about familial discord among the younger members of a Jewish family.

The setting is the recently acquired Riverside Drive studio apartment of two well-off brothers, Jonah Haber (Philip Ettinger) and Liam Haber (Michael Zegen), each attending top-notch colleges but home due to a death in the family. They may have a few issues as brothers are wont to have, but they are nothing compared to the one critical development instigated by their female first cousin Daphna (Tracee Chimo), a senior at Vassar College who turns out to not only be a loose canon, but a motor-mouthed, one-person firing squad with a mission. With Jonah's approval, she has ensconced herself for a short stay in the apartment following the funeral of their adored grandfather "Poppy."

The late arrivals include Liam and Melody (Molly Ranson), a very pretty, blue-eyed blonde, a Gentile whom Liam intends to marry, much to Daphna's chagrin and her barely concealed contempt. It seems that Liam has not only missed the funeral but claims he was unable to get the news of his grandfather's death due to dropping his iphone off the ski lift at the Aspen Colorado resort where he and Melody were vacationing.

It is pretty obvious from the start that compatibility and generosity of spirit are not going to play a part in the way these four are going to treat each other. As we watch the irrational and reprehensible behavior of two of its four characters escalate out of control, it becomes a clear test for the other two to simply survive the tumult that has been created, the situations that have been inflamed and the personal agendas that are being exposed.

The main cause of the contentious interplay is the chai, with its two golden Hebrew letters that "Poppy" kept safely under his tongue while he was in a German concentration camp camp. Daphna desperately wants it as a keepsake but Liam now has in his possession and intends to give to Melody as a symbolic token of his love. The nebbish Jonah and the stunned and unprepared-for-battle Melody are unwittingly drawn into the frenzied fray and become somewhat touching and disarming as victims.

This leaves the major ranting and raving to Daphna and Liam . They unleash their long-standing resentment, make that hatred for each other. As ferociously played by Zegen, Liam, is more than a match for Daphna's contemptuous verbal assaults. His lengthy and vindictive tirades, mostly based on their past animosity, are fueled by an emotional intensity that rivals almost anything I can recall in recent dramatic literature.

This is a play that becomes richer and riper through the exploration of the four characters as they withstand venomous attacks and sorrowful withdrawals, humiliating denouncements and full disclosures. This says a lot for Joshua Harmon whose skill as an up-and-coming playwright is quickly apparent. His has created four beautifully complex characters and a situation that needs no more than a little dramatic kindling to ignite.

Incorrigible incivility may be a good way to describe what happens in the apartment during this one evening. For us, it represents one hundred blistering minutes, particularly in the company of one really extraordinary character. She is Daphna, a kind of keeper of the faith. She makes frequent mention of her plan to emigrate to Israel where marriage to an Israeli awaits her. With her lengthy mop of curly, out of control hair and her glaring, wild-looking eyes, it is conceivable that she could turn any onlooker into stone at will, a feat that Chimo comes close to accomplishing during her excitingly bravura performance.

Daphna's relationship with Liam has always been as testy and volatile as her relationship with the decidedly nebbish, peace-at-any-price Jonah more easily manipulated. At first, Ettinger fools us with his constantly retreating response, but soon this skilled actor makes us understand and see how his relatively benign posture has been always been a part of his survival. It would also be easy to misread the lovely, passive resistant performance by Ranson as Melody, a shiksa in a strange world, whose defenses don't' prove to be as down as we might think.

In the play's most hilarious and possibly most heartbreaking moment, Melody demonstrates her singing ability (or lack of) as a former voice major with a rendition of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, an aria that will now and forever be etched in my mind as it has never been before. And Bad Jews is now etched in my mind as a highlight of the current dramatic season.

Bad Jews
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Daniel Aukin

Cast: Philip Ettinger (Jonah Haber), Tracee Chimo (Daphna Feygenbaum), Michael Zegen (Liam Haber), Molly Ranson (Melody)
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Costume Design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Shane Rettig
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission
Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets: ($20)
Bad Jews is sold out, however there may be day-of tickets available. Call Audience Services at (212) 719-1300 for more information.
Performances: Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:00PM with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30PM.
From 10/05/12 Opened 10/30/12 Ends 12/30/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/01/12
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