Dysfunction, Sincerity And A Lot Of Conflict Brings Laughs And Tears With “Bad Jews”

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Em Piro as Daphna, tries to reason with Antonio Rodriguez as Liam while Taylor Steward as Meloday listens in the background in “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Poppy has died and two brothers and their cousin are expected to attend the funeral of their grandfather. In “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre, things don’t go exactly as planned and the result is hilarious and moving, scary and filled with empathy. You really learn to care about all of the characters despite their fury and often obnoxious behavior.

Daphna and Jonah open the play as she and her cousin discuss and spar over the ceremony, the missing brother and her desire to get only one thing left behind by Poppy, his Chai necklace. As the only practicing Jew in the bunch, she has a deep affection for the symbol of Life and what it means to her religion and the memory of Poppy. Jonah is still Jewish but doesn’t practice his faith. He just wants to be left out of any family squabbles.

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Pete Winfrey as Jonah and Em Piro as Daphna try to relate during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

When brother Liam enters with his goy girlfriend, Daphna goes ballistic and tears into both of them immediately. Liam professes to now be an atheist and his Christian soon-to-be-fiance, Meloday, is mostly referred to as Delaware as if it describes both her home and her religion. Liam has been given the Chai necklace- or maybe he just took it. He, however, plans to give it to Meloday in lieu of an engagement ring. So he’s not willing to part with it. To further complicate things, Liam reveals he didn’t get to the funeral because he dropped his cell phone off the ski lift while he and Meloday were vacationing in Aspen and didn’t know Poppy had died.

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Liam rants while Jonah, Daphna and Meloday look on during “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

The ensuing battles- mainly between Daphna and Liam with Meloday as a victim by association- are classic stage rants. I’m sure families act this way toward each other, but it really makes for good theatre. Daphna, among other concerns, feels that Liam marrying a Christian and Jonah not practicing his faith, will end the long line of Jewish heritage- both in the family and perhaps the world as we know it. A bit extreme, perhaps, but everything with Daphna is taken to the nth degree.

Em Piro is a whirling dervish as Daphna. She bounces around the stage and has overreactions to almost everything that’s said or done. She neither has the ability nor the inclination to stop talking and making demands on everyone. It’s a stellar performance that almost steals the show. But Antonio Rodriquez has a few things to say about that. As he makes a triumphant return to St. Louis from his new acting home base, Chicago, he flings himself into this broad, bombastic role with pure relish.  He is nothing short of spectacular.

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Liam consoles Meloday while Jonah looks on during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Taylor Steward’s Meloday is a wonderful contrast to these feuding cousins. She tries to shy away from getting involved too deeply but at times can’t help but defend herself. At two different times, the women go into the bathroom and they are heavily discussed by the other members of the family. We soon learn that walls don’t drown out the sound so the ladies both know exactly what the others think of them. Ms. Steward is a delight as she struggles between acquiescence and rage.

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Daphna and Jonah look on as Liam consoles Meloday in “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Rounding out the cast is Pete Winfrey as the laid-back brother, Jonah. As he says, “don’t put me in the middle of this.” He tries to placate the feuding cousins but it just doesn’t want to resolve itself. His reactions to all of the carnage is priceless. He’s one of the best young actors in our town and this role shows how solidly he can play a character while the rest of his family is literally falling apart at his feet. You can see that he is as torn up about the feud as he appears to be about his faith.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga keeps “Bad Jews” running at full tilt. She captures every nuance and aspect of the subject matter while keeping controlled chaos effectively on stage. The Dunsi Dai set design is wonderful even though, for purposes of suspension of disbelief, you’d have trouble finding a New York apartment this spacious. Kimberly Klearman’s lights add just the right touch and the costumes of Michele Friedman Siler are perfect showing contrasts between the two brothers as well as the apparent differences between the two ladies.

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Meloday and Daphna try to work it out during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

There’s a lot of wickedness on stage but also a lot of love and concern. At one point the brothers and cousin find mutual understanding in retelling a story about Poppy. And even with the swirl of cursing and accusations, there seems to be an underlying respect. At least we hope things will go better in the future.

“Bad Jews,” a delight mixture of humor and hubris by Joshua Harmon, plays at New Jewish Theatre through December 20th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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