In her director’s notes to City Theatre’s new production of Joshua Harmon’s play “Bad Jews,” Stacey Glazer explains, “What does it mean to be Jewish? Ask 12 Jews, you’ll get 45 answers. We are a people who question and debate everything.” It is this kind of debate, particularly within families, that is at the heart of “Bad Jews,” making it at times uproariously funny and existentially sorrowful.
Both a comedic tragedy and a tragic comedy, “Bad Jews” presents one evening in the lives of three cousins — brothers Liam and Jonah and their cousin Daphna — whose beloved grandfather has recently passed away. While Daphna is a fervent believer in upholding Jewish religious and cultural traditions, Liam is the epitome of a modern agnostic Jew who eschews such things, and Jonah vacillates between the two while mostly trying to avoid getting caught in the middle. Thrown into the midst of all this is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, a shiksa from Delaware with a naïve optimism born of privilege.
Glazer, both the director and designer of the show, has created a naturalistic stage picture for the ensuing drama, all taking place in real time in a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The room is cramped and crowded, with the characters constantly on top of one another, a visual representation of the ways in which their arguments compile as the story unfolds.
At the core of “Bad Jews” is, indeed, a series of arguments between Daphna and Liam, each representing two extremely different takes on modern Judaism. Though they are sometimes taken to extremes, both characters as crafted by Harmon are believably opinionated and empathetically flawed. Neither Harmon nor this production sides with one of the other in their debates about the meaning of Judaism in their lives, leaving that conclusion up to the audience, and it is to the credit of the talented cast that both characters have moments of great strength and devastating weakness.
Jem Goulding, as Daphna, perfectly portrays a certain kind of overbearing woman whose entire identity is wrapped up in her faith. David Barrera’s Liam, meanwhile, is the perfect foil to this, disdainful of much of his own culture but who nonetheless embodies it in his own mannerisms and neuroses. Both are initially quite unlikable — particularly in contrast to Brooks Laney’s sweet-natured, conflict-averse Jonah and Keaton Patterson’s bubbly-if-oblivious Melody — but as we learn more about the two cousins, we come to sympathize with each of them more and more.
Their conflict is an expression of the types of long-simmering feuds that develop among all families. One need not be Jewish to appreciate “Bad Jews” (though it doesn’t hurt), or to be moved by the deeply felt conflict between holding firm to tradition and assimilating into the modern world.
In that sense, “Bad Jews” is the timeless story of the American family, in the tradition of O’Neill, Williams and Miller. City Theatre’s production is a nuanced, layered exploration of these family dynamics, one that ultimately doesn’t come to any easy conclusions. If you ask 12 audience members which character was in the right and which one was in the wrong, you’ll get 45 answers. “Bad Jews” is a play that questions and debates everything.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through April 8
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.