Roughly 20 minutes into a recent performance of Joshua Harmon's drama "Bad Jews," a well-coiffed woman near the front of the house stood up, glared briefly at the stage and walked out. Maybe she was having a medical event, but I'd wager she was actually having an understated form of the traditional walk-out. The incident illustrates the intense reactions Harmon elicits with his eviscerating saga of three college-aged Jews at each other's throats over who will inherit their grandfather's precious Chai necklace.
The audience member in question is in the minority in her reaction. Theater Wit's production is in its third extension, having been transported from the Wit's intimate 98-seat Lakeview space to Skokie's Northlight Theater, which can accommodate an audience of 300.
The show is a commercial breakthrough for Theater Wit, and deservedly so. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler, "Bad Jews" is relentless in its exploration of religious fervor twined through with the deeply human flaws of maliciousness, manipulation and self-serving hypocrisy. Harmon's gift lies in his black-hole dark humor and his fearlessness. "Bad Jews" doesn't hold back in its depiction of the good, the bad and the shocking ugliness of the human condition as it plays out among Jews going after each other with the ferocity of exceptionally hungry piranhas.
"Bad Jews" centers on Daphne (Laura Lapidus) and her cousins Liam (Ian Paul Custer) and Jonah (Cory Kahane). The three are camped out in Jonah's apartment following the funeral of their beloved Poppy. Daphne is the "good Jew," wearing her faith with all the pride and humble-braggy showiness of a newly crowned beauty queen taking her victory runway lap. Liam is practically a WASP in Daphne's uber-judgmental estimation, and wholly unworthy of inheriting Poppy's Chai, a golden Hebrew symbol on a chain that Poppy miraculously was able to keep hidden for years in a Nazi death camp. Liam believes otherwise: To Daphne's outraged horror, Liam announces he plans to propose to his very blonde, very Gentile girlfriend Melody (Erica Bittner) with the Chai, putting it around her neck in lieu of a ring. Daphne's reaction calls to mind the head-exploding scene in "Scanners," and "Bad Jews" intensifies from there.
But here's the thing: Even when they're at their worst, the Jews of "Bad Jews" are coming from a place that passionately aspires to goodness. Their flaws are noisy, politically incorrect, offensive and glaring, yet Harmon isn't mocking or condemning these characters. Embedded in the verbal lacerations and brawling fisticuffs among Daphne, Johan and Liam, is a bedrock of cultural, religious and spiritual devotion. Everyone in this play passionately wants to honor their faith. It's a shame Mrs. Righteous didn't stick around. She would have realized that.
"Bad Jews" continues through July 19 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie. For more info, go to www.theaterwit.org
Photos by Charles Osgood