Good Jews, Bad Jews, it's all relative. It is all relative, in multiple ways, in Joshua Harmon's laceratingly funny Bad Jews. This purposely claustrophobic four-character play proved a sellout audience hit when it premiered last October at the 62-seat Roundabout Underground. So much so that the Roundabout brass have seen fit to offer it upstairs as a full subscription entry at the Laura Pels, presently scheduled through Dec. 15.
Playwright Harmon is a 30-year-old New Yorker out of Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon. He has had fellowships at MacDowell and the Eudora Welty Foundation, and is working on commissions from Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout. Which is to say, he is what you could consider to be up-and-coming. Bad Jews is not in a league with Miller or Wasserstein, two New York playwrights who had their own insights on bad Jews; the play veers onto shaky ground when the playwright runs out of steam in the final scene. But Harmon's play is (a) plenty impressive enough and (b) sure to be an immense crowd pleaser and (c) one of the funniest things on the New York stage right now (the others being Book of Mormon and Buyer and Cellar). There are plenty of playwrights around, I expect, who would gladly settle for (b) and/or (c).
What's so bad about bad Jews (and what's so good about Bad Jews)? A bad Jew, according to Harmon, is -- simply put -- a Jew who is not as "good" as you are. Daphna (Tracee Chimo, and she is terrific), the catalyst of the play, considers her cousin and nemesis Liam (Michael Zegen) a bad Jew because she once saw him eat shortbread cookies after the Passover Seder, at which point he laughingly proclaimed "I'm a bad Jew!" (Jews aren't supposed to eat Lorna Doones on Passover, except for those who do.)
But how bad is bad? On what basis do you measure your personal religious practices against those of others? And how does this all apply to first cousins, grandchildren of the same patriarch? First cousins, who know each other a bit too close for comfort, and carry filial bonds and grudges from childhood on through the time when they should theoretically be behaving like adults?
The battle of the piece -- and it's a knockout fight in which the big talkers stun themselves (and the audience) by turning violent -- is over a chai. Not the Chai Tea Latte you get at your neighborhood Starbucks, but the gold pendant some Jews wear on a chain. (Chai is a two-letter word, which in English means "life" -- as in Fiddler on the Roof's "to life, to life, L'Chayim.") In this case, the chai belonged to the grandfather or Daphna, Liam, and Liam's brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger). Poppy kept the chai hidden through his years at a concentration camp; when he proposed to the cousins' grandmother after the war, the penniless refugee gave her his gold chai instead of a ring.
Poppy has now died, with the play taking place late at night after the funeral; Liam -- what kind of a Jewish name is Liam, anyway? -- has missed the funeral because he lost his phone on a ski lift in Aspen. He is what you might call the opposite of religious, but nevertheless plans to propose to shiksa girlfriend Melody (Molly Ransom) using Poppy's chai.
This makes Daphna go -- to use the technical term -- bonkers. She is a good Jew or a serious Jew or a real Jew, take your pick; upon her imminent graduation from Vassar, she plans to move to Israel and become a rabbi. So there is no question as to who by rights should get Poppy's cherished chai. But there is.
Director Daniel Aukin (of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles) does an excellent job with the play and the young cast. He has instructed set designer Lauren Helpern (of 4000 Miles, Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, and Tracy Letts' Bug) to constrict him with a narrow studio apartment, the floor space taken up by a sleeper couch and two air mattresses; Aukin's actors climb and clumsily bounce across Helpern's set in an all-too-realistic manner. The actors all do crackerjack jobs, from the astonishing Ms. Chimo to Molly Ransom -- last year's Carrie, poor thing -- as the outsider who gives us a rendition of "Summertime" that is beyond comparison.
Harmon weaves this all into a taut and tight 100 minutes, with the play lurching into action upon the delayed entrance of the Aspen snowboarders. Aggression -- initially veiled, eventually baldly naked -- detours into a shared family memory of a journey to Benihana (a popular Japanese Hibachi restaurant) so uproarious that nobody can quite finish the story. Just as suddenly, a line is crossed and things turn unbearable tense. Harmon still has a last minute twist for us, which I expect some viewers will buy and others reject. But he has given us a gleefully funny, thought-provoking evening.