Family bonds and family brawls apparently make the world go round and sometimes a little topsy-turvy. Yet rarely have they been expressed with more decimating hubris and exhilarating gusto than in the very funny comedy “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon. I saw this play in its premiere in New York in 2012, and it still remains fixed in my head as one of the best plays of that year.
It is now getting a superbly acted and directed production at the George Street Playhouse, where I was able to once again laugh aloud at the viciously contentious infighting between the grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor. Two of them feel they deserve to take possession of the small religious chai medallion — with its two golden Hebrew letters symbolizing life — that their recently deceased grandfather treasured and managed to keep hidden during his captivity in a German concentration camp.
Under the terrific no-holds-barred direction of Jessica Stone, making an impressive George Street debut, the play places its three blood-related first cousins and one outsider into an unsettling situation that involves one’s faith, family traditions, and loyalty to one’s cultural identity.
From the start, we are inclined to give our heart-felt sympathies to the neutral and nebbish-y Jonah Haber (Amos VanderPoel), a sometimes college student caught in the crosscurrents of the quarreling between his cousin Daphna Feygenbaum (Laura Lapidus), his brother Liam (Alec Silberblatt), and his mostly stunned Gentile girl friend Melody (Maddie Joe Landers.)
The scene, or rather the arena, is the snazzy (great set design by Charlie Corcoran) Upper West Side co-op studio apartment — with a view (as we are told) of the Hudson from the bathroom window — purchased and given to Jonah by his wealthy parents who live in their own apartment down the hall. Familial discord turns fierce with a vengeance despite it taking place at the start of the week of mourning, or “shiva.”
The two brothers have a few issues as brothers often have, but they are nothing compared to the one critical development instigated by their female first cousin, a senior at Vassar College who turns out to not only be a loose cannon but a motor-mouthed, one-person firing squad with a mission. With Jonah’s consent, she has ensconced herself for a short stay in the apartment following the funeral of their adored grandfather.
Liam arrives late with Melody, a very pretty, blue-eyed blonde whom he intends to marry. It seems that Liam has not only missed the funeral but claims he was unable to get the news of his grandfather’s death due to dropping his cell phone off the ski lift at the Aspen Colorado resort where he and Melody were vacationing.
It is pretty obvious from the start that compatibility and generosity of spirit are not going to play a part in the proceedings. Daphna desperately wants the chai as a religious keepsake, but Liam now has it in his possession and intends to give to Melody this symbolic token of his love to uphold the family tradition. Jonah and the unprepared-for-battle Melody are unwittingly drawn into the frenzy.
This leaves the major ranting and raving of Daphna and Liam who unleash their long-standing resentment for each other. As played with a blistering ferocity by Silberblatt, Liam is more than a match for Daphna’s fiercely vindictive verbal assaults.
Incorrigible incivility may be a good way to describe what happens in the apartment during this one evening, but your attention will be mostly riveted by the performance of Lapidus as Daphna, an impassioned keeper of the faith with her plan to emigrate to Israel. With her lengthy mop of curly, disheveled hair and her glaring gaze, it is conceivable that she could turn any onlooker into stone at will — a terrific performance of an extraordinary character.
Daphna’s relationship with Liam has always been as testy and volatile as her relationship with the peace-at-any-price Jonah is more easily manipulated. At first, VanderPoel fools us with his constantly retreating response, but soon this fine young actor makes us understand and see how his relatively benign posture has been always been a part of his survival. It would also be easy to misread the lovely, passive resistant performance by Landers as Melody, a “shiksa” in a strange world, whose defenses don’t prove to be as down as we might think.
This is a play that becomes richer and riper through the exploration of the four complex characters as they withstand venomous attacks and sorrowful withdrawals. Harmon has also created a situation that needs no more than a little dramatic kindling to ignite. This is a play that creates both laughter and pathos.
Bad Jews, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, April 9. $17 to $69. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.