Playwright Joshua Harmon may or may not have been thinking of No Exit when he wrote his acrid dramedy Bad Jews. But after seeing the riveting new production of Harmon's play at GableStage, Sartre's metaphysical masterpiece seems like a touchstone in at least one sense: It depicts a handful of tortured souls, trapped and bickering in a prison of their making, with no resolution on the horizon. Hell is other Jews.
The infernal setting, in this case, is a studio apartment on the Upper West Side, a property so privileged that, as two characters point out, "You can see the Hudson River from the bathroom!" A pullout sofa and two air mattresses of varying quality are spread along the carpet of the space, a single person's sprawl converted into a cramped barracks for four.
This is where the religiously observant Daphna Feygenbaum (Natalia Coego) and two of her cousins -- the loose-canon atheist Liam (David Rosenberg) and the quiet doormat Jonah (Mark Della Ventura) -- will spend a fraught night on the day of their grandfather's funeral, arguing chiefly over the possession of a Jewish family heirloom. Daphna wants it because she's the most fervent believer of them all, a kosher-keeping, Hebrew-speaking carrier of the torch, with a boyfriend waiting for her in Israel. Liam has his own designs on the sacred amulet, which becomes all the more infuriating to Daphna because they involve his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Lexi Langs), whom he has brought along uninvited.
See also: Mothers and Sons at GableStage: Theater as Gestalt Therapy
Their fierce exchanges, often taking the form of self-righteous monologues from both sides, ultimately address such subjects as religious versus cultural Judaism, fidelity to family, Israel/Palestine, the Holocaust, the Jewish diaspora, and the specter of hypocrisy. Jonah, meanwhile, just wants to be left out of the debate, though he's continually reeled in as an arbiter.
Though they disagree on their faith, Liam and Daphna are cut from the same fold of withered cloth, both of them pugnacious in their opinions, obstinate in their natures, salty in their vocabularies. Even considering the profane pantheon of dysfunctional families in the American theater, the words exchanged in Bad Jews are shockingly abrasive.
It's to director Joseph Adler's credit that we're never alienated by spending time with such unpleasant people; he maintains a tone perched precariously between comedy and discomfort. We can laugh at them because they're not us, but deep down we probably identify with one of them, and this identification can be unsettling.
With the exception of the first 15 minutes of the production -- which exhibits a vague sitcom patina, and whose actors need a while to find the right groove, at least on opening night -- Adler's casting is spot-on. Langs is perfect as the fish out of water, playing Melody as simple and clueless when she needs to be, but as perhaps brighter than everyone else when the time comes.
Della Ventura has the least amount of lines, but this doesn't diminish his impact. He remains fully present from his sequestered hide-a-bed, burying his head under pillows and sheets, as if hoping a black hole opens in the fabric that can spirit him away from this torture. But the more the play progresses, the more his seemingly unbothered mien becomes awash in an anguish that only reveals itself in the play's heartrending dénouement.
Rosenberg plays Liam as a seething motor mouth one minute, a silent fumer the next, successfully conveying the pain of watching his grand aspirations for the night slip from his control. But if his performance is merely very good, Coego's is superb. Starting with her flawlessly nasal delivery and nest of untamed hair, she's a quintessential Jewish American Princess, witty and judgmental, morally justified and transparently phoney, consuming the room's oxygen like it's Manischewitz at a seder.
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I reckon Harmon's intent was for both Liam and Daphna to offer deft observations and cogent attacks -- to be equal jousting partners in the battle for the soul of Judaism. But the fire burning within Coego's performance is so fierce, so persuasive, so thrillingly infectious, that you don't have to agree with her viewpoints to concede her victory -- hollow and irreparable as it may be.
Bad Jews runs through December 21 at GableStage, located at 1200 Anastasia Ave. in Coral Gables. Tickets run $40-$55. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.