Families can weaponize your secrets, turn a searchlight on your flaws, and home in on your contradictions like a GPS whose coordinates are always set to one destination: your Achilles heel.
That fundamental truth adds the crackle of electricity to Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,’’ now receiving its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company in a searingly funny production directed by Rebecca Bradshaw.
Bradshaw skillfully creates and sustains an atmosphere of unpredictability and even a whiff of psychological danger as “Bad Jews’’ unfolds late at night in an Upper West Side studio apartment (designed by Eric Levenson). Look elsewhere for the consolations of affectionate satire; this is a dark comedy that cuts deep and draws blood.
While the power struggle depicted in “Bad Jews’’ is vividly particularized, its cracked mirror reveals universal truths about family life as two cousins square off in a competition for a precious heirloom left by their just-deceased grandfather. Their squabble quickly escalates into a ferocious battle over questions of Jewish culture, identity, and faith.
On one side is Daphna (raised as Diana, she now prefers to be called by her Hebrew name), an implacably devout, invincibly self-assured Vassar College student who is brought unforgettably to life at SpeakEasy by Alison McCartan. Though the playwright ultimately stacks the deck against Daphna and she slides into caricature, she still emerges as one of the most indelible characters I’ve seen in many a moon.
Daphna is planning to move to Israel; she refers frequently to a boyfriend who she says is serving in the Israeli Army. As the most religiously observant member of the family, Daphna believes she is logically entitled to the heirloom, a small medallion bearing two letters that comprise the Hebrew word chai, meaning “alive’’ or “living.’’ Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, hid the chai beneath his tongue for two years in a concentration camp, then wore it for the rest of his life.
On the other side is her determinedly secularized cousin Liam (though Daphna delights in pointing out that his Hebrew name is Shlomo). Portrayed by Victor L. Shopov, who demonstrates again his knack for inhabiting all the corners of a character, Liam is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he studies “contemporary Japanese youth culture.’’ Liam’s motive for wanting the chai is wholly different from Daphna’s. It’s clear that Liam has despised Daphna since childhood, and equally clear that the feeling is entirely and enthusiastically mutual as their paths cross after their grandfather’s funeral.
Caught miserably in the middle of their steel-cage match are Liam’s conflict-averse brother Jonah, well played by Alex Marz in a still-waters-run-deep vein, and Liam’s chipper, not-terribly-bright girlfriend Melody, portrayed by Gillian Mariner Gordon. While Gordon does a fine job, Melody is the weakest character onstage, her function too obviously having to do with plot mechanics.
But the defects of “Bad Jews’’ pale next to its virtues. The 31-year-old Harmon has a sophisticated understanding of the complex forces simmering beneath family dynamics, including that double-edged force, memory. He realizes that relatives who know each other so well, for so long, and who forget nothing, are consequently able to hurl chunks of the past at each other. In their skirmishes, Liam and Daphna operate like a couple of hypocrisy-seeking missiles, seemingly indifferent to the risk of mutually assured destruction.
Consider this excerpt from Liam’s tirade against Daphna: “I know she wishes she were this, like, barbed-wire-hopping, Uzi-toting Israeli warlock superhero — Daphna — but actually, Diana Feygenbaum grew up in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, in an armpit town doing swim team badly and hysterically sobbing when she didn’t get picked to be cheerleader. . . . She’s as Israeli as Martin van [expletive] Buren.’’
Daphna can more than hold her own, mocking Liam’s focus on “these little cultural studies because studying Japan is definitely worthy of five years of intensive labor, but studying Torah for all of 10 minutes is only worthy of total utter snide sniveling disdain; if you found yourself in the middle of a rain dance you would be sooo respectful, trying to do every movement perfectly to, like, honor every Native American who ever lived, but if you found yourself in the middle of a hora — I’ve seen you in the middle of a hora — you look like you want to [expletive] die.’’
In McCartan’s terrific performance, Daphna is the human equivalent of a runaway train. When McCartan adopts a radiantly malicious smile, you find yourself leaning forward in anticipation, eager to hear what Daphna will say next. Will it make us laugh? Or wince? Or, as is often the case in this mordantly entertaining and occasionally moving production, both?