‘Bad Jews’ A Hilarious Exercise in Horrible Behavior (5 Stars)

‘Bad Jews’ – Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson; Costume Design by Tyler Kinney. Presented by the Speakeasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theater, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 29.

What’s in a name?

If you’re thinking of skipping the Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of ‘Bad Jews’ because the title of the show offends you, do yourself a favor – don’t. Otherwise you could be denying yourself the opportunity to see not only the best comedy of 2014, but one the best plays, period. The title is not a condemnation of the religion or culture, but instead a self-reference by one of the play’s Jewish characters on how poorly he practices his faith. And considering that he’s a guy who poses in a Santa hat next to a Christmas tree in his apartment and posts the pictures on Facebook to taunt his more religious family members, the moniker is pretty apt. But this is no “Book of Mormon”. The show could easily have been called “Horrible People” because the two protagonists in the story are certainly that, but in such a disturbingly hilarious way that you may develop a warped affection for them.
As a matter of fact, the ethnicity of the characters takes a back seat to one of life’s ugly universal themes: That death often brings out the worst in the surviving family members, particularly when there is something valuable like an inheritance or a family heirloom to be squabbled over. In this case, it’s the grandfather who has passed away, leaving behind a Chai necklace that he kept hidden from the Nazis through his internment in a concentration camp by keeping it under his tongue for a full two years. Daphna Feygenbaum (the utterly brilliant Alison McCarten) perceives herself as the most deserving because she is the “real Jew” of the family, particularly when pitted against the aforementioned “bad Jew” Liam (whose Hebrew name is Shlomo), portrayed by the versatile (and equally brilliant Victor Shopov).

Caught in the middle of the dispute is Liam’s younger brother, Jonah (Alex Marz), whom the self-centered Daphna and Liam try to sway to their respective sides, without a hint of compassion for how he may be dealing with “Poppy’s” death. Also in the mix is Liam’s hopelessly white bread girlfriend Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon), who is of course, a blue-eyed blond and a natural target for Daphna’s vicious barbs.

Following the funeral, the four are forced to spend the night together in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, which becomes the battleground and a veritable psychic torture chamber when Daphna and Liam go to war on each other. We get a taste of Daphna’s insecurity-driven narcissistic leanings right from the start as she begins working on Jonah to score the Chai for herself. But that in no way prepares us for the psychotically loathsome (but howlingly funny) self-righteous screed that she unloads on Liam’s unsuspecting girlfriend, which concludes with her telling Melody that her “family was more than likely major contributors and perhaps even leaders of the most atrocious genocide in American history,” simply by virtue of her ancestors being of European descent and emigrating to Delaware.

But she’s not the only one with a personality disorder, and Liam is just as demeaning to everyone he encounters, with that repulsive sense of superiority so common to those enslaved by compassionless intellect.  He begins his dissection of his cousin’s all-consuming fascination with her Jewishness  with “I know she wishes she were this like barbed wire hopping, Uzi-toting Israeli warlock superhero: Daphna; but actually, Diana Feygenbaum grew up in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania,” and the verbal assault just rolls from there. The character assessments by both Liam and Daphna may be spot on, but they’re meant to cut to the core like hurt-seeking missiles.

Which doesn’t mean they’re not funny. Quite the contrary. The rants by Liam and Shopov are unnervingly hilarious, and I found myself trying not to laugh (unsuccessfully) for fear of missing the next line. The venom for both comes from a boiling cauldron of lifelong resentment for the other, because, in spite their diametrically opposite views on their faith, they are essentially the same person, something either would be loath to admit.

Shopov and McCarten are superb in their roles and we develop a twisted affection for them despite their despicable character. Gordon is perfect as the girlfriend and Marz gives a beautifully understated performance as the only grandchild who seems truly affected by the death. The script is by Josh Harmon is poignant, biting and brings forth a brutal honesty from the characters that should probably never be spoken by decent people.  Rebecca Bradshaw’s direction is flawless and the pace of the show feels like she got everything just right. This is a great show, whether you like the title or not. Don’t miss it. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/bad-jews/