Theater review: ‘Bad Jews’ raises good questions

From left, Michael Zegen, Tracee Chimo and Philip Ettinger are three parts of an outstanding quartet in "Bad Jews," now playing through Dec. 16 at Roundabout Underground.

Four seems to be the magic number for small, tightly orchestrated straight dramas recently. Two examples that quickly come to mind are Broadway’s current “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Grace.” In that same neck of the woods, “Bad Jews” brings a foursome that truly fills up the stage and packs a whammy without exerting itself with a massive cast. Similar, too, is the nature of this dark comedy where the sharpest humor always follows quickly on the heels of the show’s lowest blows and bleakest revelations.

With a title like “Bad Jews,” it could just as easily be a show that banks on stereotypes, triviality and kitsch. It could be a revue, where a rim shot for every punchy pun wouldn’t be out of place. But Roundabout Underground a division of Roundabout Theatre Company that explores and exposes the works of emerging artists instead brings audiences a play that’s thoughtful and fully formed. It invites you to take sides as you begin to compare the figures involved to members of your own family whether or not you’re Jewish (or even Jew-ish). As a world-premiere effort by playwright Joshua Harmon and director Daniel Aukin, this production (which is more about religion and tradition in general than its titular sect) makes a big impact that could crank up the careers of all involved.

The plot follows the death of one family’s patriarch, which brings together its youngest offspring a trio of cousins to debate who will inherit their grandfather’s chai necklace (a Holocaust relic) because of who deserves it more: Who is the very best choice among these Chosen? Is it Daphna (Tracee Chimo), who went on Birthright last summer and now plans to join the Israeli Defense Force? Or maybe it’s Liam (Michael Zegen), who’s the rightful eldest heir despite the fact that he rejects the hypocrisy of his heritage and doesn’t even plan to raise his kids Jewish. In the end, you’re left not only questioning which of these characters is the bad Jew but rather if any of them are even very good people. In the true spirit of a quality drama, the answers aren’t quite clear-cut. Don’t be surprised if everyone milling out of the theater afterward has a very different interpretation of the facts and fallacies that unravel or who comes out the winner in the end.

If you go
‘Bad Jews’

Extended through Dec. 30
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
Black Box Theatre, 111 West 46th Street,
$20, www.roundabouttheater.org


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