To the list of female comedy leads that any actress would kill to play (and win awards for), a list that includes Born Yesterday’s Billie Dawn, Twentieth Century’s Lily Garland, and Lost In Yonkers’ Bella Kurnitz, you can now add the name Daphna Feygenbaum, a role that Molly Ephraim knocks out of the ball park—and then some—in the Geffen Playhouse’s West Coast Premiere of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, a play as hilarious as it is brilliant, and one you’ll be talking about for quite some time to come.
You can blame Daphna’s just-deceased grandfather for giving the 20ish Jewish-American Princess-Of-Passive-Aggressive her latest excuse to wreak havoc as only she can.
Having crashed at her cousin Jonah’s Upper West Side studio apartment following their Poppy’s death, Daphna first forces Jonah to listen in abject silence as she attacks the utter wrongness of her college-student cousin’s being given his own million-plus-dollar Manhattan flat, then goes on to lacerate Jonah’s older brother Liam for having missed his granddad’s funeral because, get this, he dropped his cell phone from an Aspen ski lift and couldn’t call home?!
Worse still is the fact that the soon-to-arrive Liam is bringing with him his shiksa girlfriend Melody, and even worse, that the entirely wrong-for-each-other couple are planning to crash chez Liam’s brother—in the same studio apartment as Daphna and Jonah!
Daphna’s initial outrage pales, however, in comparison with the fury that she unleashes upon learning that grad student Liam intends to give their beloved Poppy’s chai, the necklace that he kept hidden under his tongue during two years in the Nazi death camps to his oh-so-not-Jewish girlfriend in lieu of an engagement ring—a wedding proposal that is going to happen over Daphna’s dead body!
Talk about a recipe for disaster and laughs.
Following its 2013 off-Broadway debut, one that scored playwright Harmon a pair of major award nominations (the Louise Lortel and the Outer Circle), Bad Jews arrives at the Geffen in a production sure to provoke as much post-performance discussion as it will inspire laughter throughout its breakneck ninety minutes.
Rarely has a play as out-and-out hilarious as Bad Jews tackled religion with as smart and savage a wit as Harmon’s does when pitting Israel-bound Daphna (who has recently given up the name Diana … if not yet her virginity) against suburbia-destined Liam, whose only connection with his religious heritage would seem to be a Hebrew name (Shlomo) that had best not be spoken in polite conversation.
No matter your place on the religious spectrum, one thing certain to unite Geffen audiences is how utterly sensational a West Coast Premiere Bad Jews is being given under Matt Shakman’s inspired direction.
Ephraim positively dazzles in her tour-de-force star turn as a young woman born with neither social filter nor pause button, a lethal combination should you happen to find yourself trapped near Daphna in an enclosed space. Part of what makes the onetime Diana so deliciously horrid (and Ephraim’s portrayal of her so absolutely brilliant) is her utter cluelessness to just how horrid she is, all of which adds up to Geffen debut that is simply divine … and a Daphna that we can’t help liking despite all that horridness.
A stellar Ari Brand’s dynamic, sexy Liam proves himself a worthy opponent to the unstoppable Daphna, a young man whose initial outrage at having to share digs with his insufferable cousin seems minor once he realizes her intention to stake claim on Poppy’s chai … and her hate-at-first-sight reaction to the woman he loves.
Two-time Best Featured Actress Scenie winner Lili Fuller once again reveals herself to be one of L.A. theater’s up-and-comingest young stars, defying bubblehead-blonde stereotypes while giving Liam’s shiksa sweetheart a heart as abundant as her “Summertime”-singing soprano is deliberately, outrageously slight.
Last but not least is Raviv Ullman’s beautifully understated performance as the still-waters-run-deep Jonah, whose “I don’t want to be involved” attitude has the boyishly appealing Ullman mostly observing from the sidelines while proving how much great acting comes down to great listening.
Scenic designer John Arnone has created an Upper East Side apartment whose price tag remains obvious despite the clutter of crashing guests. Costume designer E.B. Brooks gives each character precisely the right outfit to wear, with Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design and Jonathan Snipes’ sound design completing Bad Jews’ Broadway-caliber production design.
Additional design credit goes to assistant set designer Daniel Willis, assistant costume designers Stephanie Petagno and Angela Triviño, assistant lighting designer Ric Zimmerman, and violence designer Ned Mochel.
Elizabeth A. Brohm is stage manager and Amy Ramsdell assistant stage manager. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Understudies Alexis Jacknow and Paris Hunter Paul get the prime assignments of covering two night-and-day different roles each.
If it takes chutzpah to title a play Bad Jews, it takes even more talent to write a play as remarkable as Bad Jews turns out to be. Joshua Harmon possesses both in equal measure, and Geffen Playhouse audiences can count themselves lucky that Harmon’s inflammatorily titled play has arrived just in time to start summer off with a bang.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
June 18, 2105
Photos: Michael Lamont