You might say the Jews invented dark comedy, dating back to the first practical joke God played on Abraham and Isaac. (“I was kidding, Abe. Sacrifice the ram, dude.”)
They’ve had six millennia to become used to laughing through suffering, hone their argumentative skills, appreciate irony and employ wit that lacerates themselves and others with equal speed.
All those traits go on view in Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” an 85-minute locomotive directed at maximum speed by Tonya Bludsworth – I suspect the author would approve – and performed with maximum intensity by the two leads, Tommi May McNally and Brandon James.
She plays Daphna, who plans to graduate from Vassar and emigrate to Israel to become a soldier. He plays Liam, the cousin dating a shiksa named Melody. (The adjective in the play’s title refers to non-observance of Jewish customs, not outright wickedness.)
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They battle over a symbolic necklace called a chai, which belonged to the grandfather who just died. Liam wants to use it as an engagement pledge for Melody (Christine Noah), as the grandfather did for his wife. Daphne insists (for reasons I won’t reveal) it should be worn only by a dedicated Jew.
Their mutual contempt erupts at once, and they lacerate each other nearly nonstop. Jonah, Liam’s passive brother (Chester Shepherd), and Melody try unsuccessfully to stay out of the lines of Mamet-like verbal fire.
The main characters hear what they choose and twist innocent remarks. They are swiftly articulate in their cruelty, as is the playwright. Daphne asks Melody, who majored in opera in college, to sing, and she sounds like Minnie Mouse after a kick in the stomach. That makes no sense and pointlessly humiliates her for our amusement.
Nor does Harmon give Jonah enough to do through the play to justify the melodramatic ending, which slams us in the face. The character who has mainly been a dramatic device moves to center stage for a crucial moment, and the lights go out.
Yet Harmon makes good use of the rest of the time. He dissects Daphna’s claim to ethnic authenticity and Liam’s insistence that Jewish heritage doesn’t matter to him – maybe doesn’t matter, period – and finds both assertions wanting.
Daphna and Liam mirror each other: analytically mean-spirited, quick to judge, pouncing on perceived flaws, claiming they’re ready for love while behaving immaturely. Perhaps they’re both bad Jews, one because she obsesses over her chosen religion and one because he can’t be bothered to honor it at all.
When: Through Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 650 Stonewall St.
Running time: 85 minutes without intermission.
Details: 704-342-2251; www.atcharlotte.org.