The words “belligerence” and “banana” may not usually appear in the same sentence. But among the noteworthy traits of Daphna, the opinionated, fervently Jewish 22-year-old at the heart of Joshua Harmon’s blisteringly funny play “Bad Jews,” is the ability to eat a banana with jubilant belligerence.
As played by Laura Lapidus in the zesty iteration of the play at Studio Theatre, Daphna nibbles at the fruit while chatting with a new acquaintance named Melody. Before the snack is consumed, Daphna has gleefully browbeat her interlocutor into squirming discomfort, going so far as to suggest — in an ostensibly breezy tone — that Melody’s Delaware-based family has reaped the benefits of genocide.
Pushy, tactless, sardonic and wholly unable to resist the impulse to expound her views, Lapidus’s Daphna is the linchpin of this reprise of the production that Serge Seiden directed last season that became the best-selling show in Studio’s history. Anyone who missed that incarnation of the show will find this version living up to its predecessor’s reputation. Featuring the same design team, and three new actors, plus one returning one, under Seiden’s direction, this version of “Bad Jews” is a taut, intellectually tangy and hugely diverting riff on the subjects of family, identity, religion and emotional inheritance.
“Bad Jews” is set in the Manhattan apartment that’s home to Daphna’s well-off cousins Liam (Noah Averbach-Katz) and Jonah (Rowan Vickers). Here, on the night after their grandfather’s funeral, Daphna and Liam both lay claim to a Jewish symbol that the deceased had managed to keep safe during the Holocaust. An explosive show-down between worldviews ensues. Daphna believes that, as the most religiously observant grandchild — she is planning to study with a female, vegan rabbi in Israel — she deserves the symbol. Seeing the heirloom primarily as a reservoir of family history and personal meaning, the secular Liam disputes her reasoning.
It doesn’t help that — in a priceless plot point — Liam has managed to miss his grandfather’s funeral: While vacationing in Aspen with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Maggie Wilder, reprising her role from last season’s production), he dropped his cellphone off a ski lift and didn’t hear about the ceremony in time. Nor is the Liam-Daphna grudge a new one: Liam objects to Daphna’s more-Jewish-than-thou attitude, which he finds dubious: Only a few years ago, he points out, she was a would-be cheerleader whose AIM screen name was PrincessDiana88.
Meanwhile, Daphna objects to what she sees as Liam’s cavalier attitude toward their heritage — an attitude she sees embodied in Melody, who, she says, might have been “live-water birthed in a Talbots.”
Amid the cousins’ piquantly expressed reproaches relating to the cultural, religious and historical aspects of Judaism, “Bad Jews” also homes in on the kind of long-simmering resentments that are the bane of many families. Throughout, the comedy is all the fiercer because the emotional stakes for the characters are so real and raw.
Unfurling on Luciana Stecconi’s Upper West Side pied-à-terre set, the production exhibits a pacing that is almost musical, with artfully building tension, rip-roaring aria-like monologues for the exasperated Daphna and Liam, perfectly timed awkward pauses, and occasional moments of kooky relief, such as the performance of “Summertime” by Melody, who turns out to be a trained — and truly terrible — opera singer.
Wilder’s Melody hits just the right note of sweet cluelessness tempered with pluck. (Costume designer Kelsey Hunt supplies personality-appropriate costumes, such as Melody’s cute-waif attire.)
Averbach-Katz is aptly self-righteous as Liam, while Vickers nicely captures the apparently low-key nerdiness of Jonah, who is desperate to stay out of Daphna and Liam’s fight, and winds up smack in the middle of it.
Lapidus portrayed Daphna in a hit Chicago production of “Bad Jews,” and, as that credit might suggest, she has fine-tuned a rich, idiosyncratic version of the character. This Daphna feels pain and anxiety, but has buried those vulnerabilities beneath volubility and brashness — beneath a hovering half-smile that suggests she’s spoiling for a fight. The fact that she gets that fight is the audience’s gain.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“Bad Jews,” by Joshua Harmon. Directed by Serge Seiden; lighting design, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Palmer Hefferan. About 100 minutes. Through Jan. 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets: $45-$96. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.