— Amitai Marmorstein (Jonah), Goldie Hoffman (Daphna), Kayla Dunbar (Melody), Alex Rose (Liam) - Photo credit: Len Grinke
I’m a bad Jew, as lapsed as you can get. But I’m not nearly as bad as two of the characters in Joshua Harmon’s fascinating and funny play. Featuring four excellent performances and slick comic direction by Jay Brazeau, this is a show that leaves you laughing and thinking. What you think will probably depend to some extent on your gender, your cultural background, and--if you’re a Jew--whether or not you’re really bad.
The plot involves a conflict over inheritance. Holocaust survivor Poppy has just died, and his grandkids Jonah (Amitai Marmorstein) and cousin Daphna (Goldie Hoffman) are in Jonah’s New York apartment just after the funeral. Jonah’s bigger, louder, bullying older brother Liam (Alex Rose) shows up late with his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Kayla Dunbar).
The object of contention is Poppy’s gold chai, the Hebrew letter symbolizing life, which some Jewish men wear on a chain around their neck. This chai has special value because Poppy managed to preserve it during his years in the concentration camp where all his family perished. When he immigrated to America, poor and unable to afford an engagement ring, he used it to propose to his wife. Now Daphna wants it. She’s the most committed, ethnocentric Jew of all the grandchildren, with an Israeli boyfriend and a heavy investment in the cultural symbolism of this relic of family and Jewish history. Liam also wants it—in fact he already has it—because he plans to replicate his grandfather’s gesture when he asks Melody to marry him. The fact that he loathes Daphna strengthens his intention to keep it.
It’s hard to say who is the worse Jew, Daphna or Liam. Daphna talks a mile a minute and at first she just seems like a yenta, a somewhat narcissistic motormouth. When Liam turns up, bullying his little brother, he seems worse: angry, insensitive, obnoxious, totally self-centred. But when Liam and Daphna start going directly at each other, the gloves come off. Just when you think one is the baddest, the other ups the ante. And the language isn’t polite, either. Liam calls Daphna a cunt; Daphna says the same about Melody. Melody, not used to the way Jews, bad or otherwise, interact with each other, watches appalled. (I was reminded of the first time my sweet Christian Canadian wife, a Chilliwack girl, had dinner with my New York Jewish parents and four of their friends. “Why are they yelling at each other like that,” she asked me. “Are they having a fight?” No, I had to explain, that’s just they way they talk.) Melody is kind of the innocent bystander in this drama. Jonah is also sidelined, a passive observer of the main bout. He’s a bad Jew, too, doing nothing to resolve the conflict.
I realize this doesn’t sound very funny, and parts of it certainly aren’t, but much of the play is hilarious. The acting is terrific with Hoffman and Rose carrying the burden of both the comic and vicious dialogue, Dunbar and Marmorstein providing counterpoint from the margins. And Harmon does create opportunities for both Daphna and Liam to earn our sympathy so we’re never completely put off by their badness.
As a long one-act, the script doesn’t develop the characters or the situation as fully as we might wish but it’s a pretty juicy 90 minutes. And it’s fun arguing afterwards over which Jew is worse.