Death frees us from the strife of the world, but surviving family members aren't so lucky. Strife is the order of the day when the Feygenbaum/Haber family gathers, and now that their grandfather Poppy is gone, the knives are officially out in this modern American Jewish family. This is when they transform into the Bad Jews of Joshua Harmon's black comedy, which gets a blistering run-out courtesy of the New Jewish Theatre and director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga.
Poppy's Chai necklace is the prize openly coveted by one member of each family branch. "Chai" is the Hebrew word for "life," and Poppy kept his safe under his tongue while in a Nazi concentration camp. It is an important symbol in the family history, but it doesn't mean the same thing to each of those warring factions.
In this corner is Daphna Feygenbaum (Em Piro), a young woman who cherishes her Jewishness as a cultural identity and a living religion that's worth fighting for. For her the necklace is proof of concept; Judaism can survive anything, and so can she. Daphna's opponent is her cousin Liam (Antonio Rodriguez), a self-proclaimed atheist who studies Japanese culture and exclusively dates shiksas. For him the necklace marks the start of the family's life in America; here the old ways died away, and living life as just another American is not just possible, it's desirable.
In between them is Liam's younger brother Jonah (Pete Winfrey), who is mum on the topics of Jewishness, Poppy's Chai and whom he supports in the fight. He's part punching bag and part pawn, but viewed as a key ally by both Daphna and Liam.
Rodriguez does great work as the tightly wound Liam, who physically recoils at the mere sight of Daphna and her unruly mass of curly hair. He's the kind of guy who believes he's smarter than everyone he meets, and he's not shy about letting them know it. But when he snaps – and Daphna knows just how to push him to it – Rodriguez shreds that urbane façade to reveal a viciousness that terrifies Daphna, Jonah and his own fiancée, the casually WASPish Melody (Taylor Steward).
Piro captures the essence of Daphna's religious fervor and sanctimony while still keeping her likeable — which may be only because she's not directing it at us. She's the sort of woman who welcomes Melody with a barrage of friendly questions, and then synthesizes the information gleaned into statements such as, "You have the blood of genociders in your veins." She later badgers Melody into singing a brutally soulless rendition of Porgy and Bess' "Summertime."
Bad Jews packs a surfeit of painfully funny scheming and confrontations in its 90 minutes, so much so that it feels quicker than it is. Even then, it's a relief when you reach the end, because you can only take so much horrible behavior before it becomes fatiguing. It doesn't spoil anything to tell you nobody wins, because nobody really wins a family fight. Well, maybe Poppy won – he lived just long enough to bow out before his grandkids started this one.