Who exactly are the “Bad Jews” in Joshua Harmon’s dysfunctional-Jewish-family comedy-drama, a provocative, funny and unsettling Bay Area premiere at the Magic Theatre?
Or, who is the baddest of this trio of smart and disturbed young cousins, crammed together in a New York apartment just after their beloved grandfather, Poppy’s, funeral?
Is it the most obvious one, older and non-practicing brother Liam, a graduate student who’s brought along his pretty but dim shiksa girlfriend, Melody?
Is it Liam’s religiously observant, motor-mouth cousin Daphna from the poorer side of the family, who intends to join the Israeli army and marry the Israeli soldier boyfriend that no one’s ever met?
Is it Liam’s younger brother, Jonah, who refuses to take sides in the escalating conflict between the other two?
At issue is a chai, a medallion that has deep sentimental value for Liam and Daphna; it belonged to Poppy, a Holocaust survivor who managed to safeguard it throughout the war. Liam intends to use it in lieu of a ring to propose to Melody. Daphna believes that, as the true Jew, she deserves it.
The long-simmering antagonism between Daphna and Liam erupts into a full-fledged battle so ugly that Jonah and Melody cower in the tiny, claustrophobic apartment where the foursome are holed up for the night.
But playwright Harmon has more in mind than a family quarrel: Through Liam and Daphna’s heated and emotional (but never didactic) arguments, he brings to the fore the ramifications of a future, more homogenous society, one in which – through such intermarriages as Liam and Melody’s – barriers of race and ethnicity and culture dissolve.
And he’s looking at the legacy handed down to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
It’s tempting to think that director Ryan Guzzo Purcell cast silky-blond Riley Krull and frizzy-headed Rebecca Benhayon for their contrasting hair. But he’s smarter than that: the ensemble is altogether stellar.
Under his direction, Krull’s Melody is not merely sweet and compassionate — in stark contrast to Daphna – but also strong-minded. Benhayon probes layers of pain and hurt and humor in the judgmental and bitter Daphna. Max Rosenak’s mix of rage and tenderness feels deep and authentic, and Kenny Toll crafts a sensitive and vulnerable Jonah, whose function in the play appears minor but is in fact important.
Amid all the angst, the comic elements register strongly. Krull’s strained warbling of “Summertime” is particularly heartbreaking and hilarious.
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 5
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org