Funerals can bring out the worst in families. Joshua Harmon drives that home in “Bad Jews,” a biting comedy in which the grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor observe shiva by fighting over who is most deserving of the religious artifact that was his prize possession. Harmon doesn’t flinch from the issues of Jewish faith and tradition that strain the familial bonds, and the bright young thesps in helmer Daniel Aukin’s cast tear into their furious outbursts of greed and jealousy with gusto. But the loose dramatic structure barely keeps these brilliant if bombastic arias from turning into a smackdown brawl.
The look of pure panic on Philip Ettinger’s guileless face wins beaucoup laughs for his sympathetic character, Jonah Haber, a sweet-tempered college kid who finds himself trapped in a family quarrel of monumental consequence to all parties except himself. “I’m not getting involved,” he keeps protesting. “Just leave me out.” Fat chance, kiddo.
Jonah lives in a trim studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, bought and paid for by his rich parents, whose own co-op is just down the hall. But despite having a view of the Hudson River from the bathroom window, this pricey piece of real estate is still only a studio — a very cramped one, in Lauren Helpern’s design. This means that Jonah has no place to hide when his bossy, overbearing, fanatically religious first cousin comes to bunk with him while they sit shiva for their grandfather.
Cousin Diana — or Daphna, to use her preferred Hebrew name — is a monster of many unlovely parts, all minutely examined and bravely presented in a fierce perf from Tracee Chimo (“Bachelorette,” “Circle Mirror Transformation”). Harmon has devised a robust idiom for Daphna to vent her grievances. Whatever she has to say, no matter how unkind or insensitive, she says it straight out and in a strident tone.
Chimo, who seems to relish the cleverness of Daphna’s cruel barbs, delivers them at a fast and furious pace — and with a maniacal glint in her eye. But when the time comes, she also has the guts to bare the monster’s soft core.
By Daphna’s logic, she’s the most deserving person to inherit her grandfather’s Chai necklace, a religious heirloom of great symbolic significance, because she’s the most observant member of her Jewish family. After all, she’s studied Hebrew and taken a Hebrew name; she’s moving to Israel after her graduation from Vassar; and she’s supposed to be marrying a soldier in the Israeli army. Doesn’t this make her the proper keeper of the family’s religious heritage and traditions?
But this showy religious piety is only the thin veneer covering Daphna’s personal grievances against her rich relations. Much of her seething envy is directed toward her nonobservant cousin, Liam (Michael Zegen), who doesn’t shy away from calling himself “a bad Jew.” So once Liam arrives from an Aspen vacation with Melody (Molly Ranson), his sweet and oh-so-stupid shiksa girlfriend, the battle lines are well defined.
Unlike his brother, Liam isn’t afraid to take on Daphna and fight her for his grandfather’s Chai. Zegen, who plays Bugsy Siegel on “Boardwalk Empire,” has impressive command of the language himself, throwing himself into a blistering attack on Diana and her portrayal of herself as “this Uzi-toting Israeli superhero” who calls herself Daphna. His own names for her are unprintable.
But while all this nastiness is enjoyable on its own terms, as a piece of theater it plays like the last act of an unwritten drama. It’s maddening, not knowing something of the history between Liam and Daphna, or at least how they came to be archenemies. As it now stands, their big fight is all climax but no ground plan.