Daphna (Sigi Gradwohl), one of three cousins in playwright Joshua Harmon’s 80-minute one-act, fits this unfortunate description. She’s an intense, obsessive 20-something, whom we meet in the Manhattan studio apartment of her cousin Jonah (Tyler Alverson) on the occasion of their grandfather’s death. Daphna was born Diana, but since returning from a trip to Israel she’s discarded her birth name, in keeping with the fierceness of her newly adopted Jewish identity. This sense of herself, as more religious than either Jonah or his brother Liam (Jordan Wall), is what drives her to claim possession of their granddad’s chai, a small charm he kept with him during his years at Auschwitz, concealing it under his tongue to avoid confiscation.
But Liam also wants it badly. In fact, it is in his possession, and he plans to give it to his gentile girlfriend, Melody (Hilary Curwen), whom he intends to marry. Liam, a secular Jew, despises Daphna, and their contentious battle over the family heirloom is meant, at least in part, to reflect on what it means to be Jewish in an increasingly integrated society.
To assimilate or not? Jewish people have wrestled with this for centuries (Moses raged at the ambivalent Hebrews for worshipping false idols, and it was certainly an issue for the Hellenic Jews in Greece and Rome). In Bad Jews, Harmon may have intended this controversy to be part of the fabric of the play, but the thread gets lost amidst the sturm und drang of the characters’ egos, their wrath and resentment.
As the dominant personality, Gradwohl, under Sabrina Lloyd’s direction, is pitch-perfect as a nonstop blabbermouth, impervious to the opinions of others and with a mean streak that she gleefully uses to skewer the hapless Melody, who's as sweet and civilized as Daphna is blunt and feral.
The problem is, Gradwohl is so persuasive — "Will this woman never shut up?" you think — that 20 minutes in you start looking around for the exit. Eventually Liam gets it together to seriously challenge her, but it’s a wait. Meanwhile, you are part of a captive audience for someone who, if she actually existed, you’d cross a desert to get away from.
Let me again stress that this is an issue with the play and the character and not the performer, who does a yeo-woman’s job in the lead role. Wall, like Gradwohl, is quite convincing, especially when he’s expressing his disdain for her. Though Alverson is a bit bland as the nonconfrontational Jonah, he fills the bill. Blond and dressed in pink and turquoise, Curwen, though somewhat miscast, creates a suitable foil for Daphna, although you can’t help perceiving the performer as a lot savvier than the compliant woman she’s portraying.
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