“BAD JEWS” is a blisteringly funny play, topped off with an offensive title, its bile and (possible) redemption contained in a taut, non-stop 90 minutes. The dialogue is as tight as the setting, a cramped studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that this night is supposed to accommodate three cousins and one cousin’s girl friend. Neil Simon created the Odd Couple, but playwright Joshua Harmon has given us the Terrible Trio (plus the never-saw-it-coming girl friend).
The occasion of the cousins’ coming together is their grandfather’s funeral, which one cousin has missed—tellingly, the one with the shiksa girl friend. Cousin Daphna, who has fashioned herself into a Super Jew, would most likely have clashed with her cousins no matter what (two of them want the same deeply meaningful memento from the grandfather), but cousin Liam’s absence from the funeral—he dropped his cellphone from a ski lift in Vail and didn’t get the 411—is just the trigger she, and the play, need.
Listening to the bilious badinage among the cousins (with nerdy Jonah trying in vain to stay out of the way) is like watching an intense tennis match, back and forth, back and forth. The sniping starts immediately, and after the final explosion I was wrung out, with emotion and guilty laughter. I was also left with a question: How on earth do the actors, especially Lapidus, who motor-mouths her way through about 87 of the play’s 90 minutes, do this every night?
“I don’t know, honestly,” Lapidus says as she settles down to chat in an upstairs lobby at Studio Theatre. “There’s a lot of warming-up involved, of course. In a funny way you do it for her, for my character, Daphna. You do it for her every day. This is her world and she’s fighting really hard.”
On the first truly cold day of this Washington winter, Lapidus has arrived from her temporary Dupont Circle apartment and has unwrapped her woolly scarf and undone her cozy-looking coat. First surprise: the character Daphna’s impressive mound of crinkled curly hair is missing—”It’s a wig!”—replaced by the actor Laura’s less-flamboyant dark waves.
Another surprise: Lapidus looks younger than the 22-year-old Daphna, yet is in fact five years older. She admires Daphna: “It’s nice to see the ‘weird, dark girl’ who’s not just a foil to the ‘pretty girl.’ ” And she’s been playing her for months now, first in Chicago from last May until this past November and now at Studio, which featured the show last year (with a different cast) and has extended the current run through January 17. It’s the same play, but everything is different, says Lapidus—different actors, different directors, different sets, different costumes.
And, of course, the play is different every night. Says Lapidus, “Some nights you can tell people get into the comedy of it right away; other nights people aren’t sure if they’re allowed to laugh. I think sometimes people are put off by seeing a young woman who’s not being, well, ‘proper.’ There aren’t that many [roles] for girls to act what I think is more normal.
“Audiences bring their own experiences in there with them. The title is offensive to many people, and I wonder, what if someone has just buried a grandfather or grandmother, what are they going to feel?”
What remains the same for Lapidus is the physical force of the play and the energy required to play it to its explosive end, seven or eight times a week. She acknowledges, “If I don’t time my meals just right, I can be like starving at the end of the night! ‘Did I just run a marathon or something? I’m so hungry!’ ”
For the audiences that have made “Bad Jews” Studio’s best-selling play ever, the questions the play raises linger long after the house lights have come back up. Questions such as, What is a “good” Jew? What is a “bad” Jew? What do the thousands of years of tradition mean? And, why, in a time and a place where it is easier than ever to be Jewish, would people allow their religious and cultural connections to fade away, whether by intermarriage or mere indifference?
Playwright Harmon’s script doesn’t provide answers, or rather he proposes many answers, leaving us, the audience, to ponder things on our own.
Where does Lapidus fall on the “good Jew-bad Jew” spectrum? She laughs a little, then talks about her seventh-grade class trip to Washington. “We visited the Holocaust Museum, and as we moved through and things started to get really real, I suddenly burst into tears. All this time I had felt that I was just another white girl, but then I found out that I was this other thing, something that once had to be disguised and was hunted!
“I was bat-mitzvahed,” the Chicagoan adds, “but I don’t go to temple or anything. Nonetheless, it feels that being Jewish is an important part of my identity and that I should pass on the traditions to my children.”
What about the audiences? “Some people presume you have to be Jewish to enjoy the play, but I don’t think that’s true,” Lapidus says. Maggie Wilder, who plays the very white-bread Melody, is “hard-core Irish Catholic” and, Lapidus points out, says, Oh yeah, this is just family.
“I think most people who come to see the play aren’t that much a Liam or that much a Daphna. They see themselves as somewhere in between, and that’s what I think is the genius mechanism of the play—it asks you to fill in that space.”
“Bad Jews” plays through January 17 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; 202-332-3300; tickets are $20 to $65. studiotheatre.org.