If words could really kill, then the stage manager at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre would have a lot of messy mopping up to do after every performance of Bad Jews, a fierce and funny clash-of-wills in which first cousins fight (if not to the death, pretty damn near close to it) over a chai that hung around their grandfather's neck.
The old boy has barely been lowered into his grave before Daphna Feygenbaum (Tracee Chimo), a Vassar senior, goes into banshee overdrive to get the heirloom from her generation's first-born male, Liam Haber (Michael Zegen), a petulant grad student who missed the funeral altogether because he was snowboarding in Aspen with his shiksa girlfriend, the ridiculously named Melody (Molly Ranson). The two square off and slug it out in claustrophobically close quarters — the studio crash-pad of Liam's brother, Jonah (Philip Ettinger), a very reluctant eye-witness.
The scalding acrimony that is then slung about with such cruel abandon and authority by these two comes from a seemingly placid place. His name is Joshua Harmon, 30, and he has all the wide-eyed, cherub-faced innocence of Jonah Hill — a clever disguise for someone so adept at writing deliciously nasty diatribes. Making his New York debut as a playwright, he wowed critics last year when this play premiered at the Roundabout Underground's Black Box Theatre. Its 62 seats sold out regularly, and now Bad Jews has been moved upstairs to the 420-seat Laura Pels.
You have to ask: what came first — the title or the play? "I wish I had a good story," Harmon said apologetically as he launched into a good story. "The title popped into my head in 2004, and that was the impetus for writing the play. I just said, 'I like this title. What could I write that would fit the title?'" Nine years passed while he thought about it, and the malice marinated into some vicious verbal mud-wrestling.
Harmon admitted, however, the title had him sweating bullets when Robyn Goodman, who produces the Underground series, summoned him to her office to discuss a possible production. "I sorta instinctively knew it was the right title, but I had no intellectual justification for it, and I was afraid she was going to ask me to change it. Two days I spent building this argument about why it had to be called this. Then, when I walked into the meeting, the first thing Robyn said to me was: 'Bad Jews — that's a great title!' Immediately, I felt safe. I thought, 'She wants the play to be what it is trying to be. She doesn't want to change it at all. She's going to take the risk.'"
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