Des Moines Register Theatre Review: ‘Bad Jews’ behave very badly in very good show

Poor Jonah Haber. He spends so much time cowering like a frightened turtle in a corner of the new show at the Des Moines Social Club that you want to invite him offstage to sit in the audience. It’s safer there, out of the spotlights, and he could just watch the show in peace.

Because God knows he won’t find any peace in Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” thebrutally funny play that StageWest offers through Sunday in the Social Club’s Kum and Go Theater. It’s up for debate if director Todd Buchacker’s title characters are “bad,” as in “unobservant,” but how they treat each other is very, very bad indeed.

I often found myself cringing, in fact – mostly for quiet 20-something Jonah (played with convincing unease by Ian Shields) but even for the shouting combatants who catch him in their crossfire. They’ve set up camp on inflatable mattresses in his New York apartment on the night of their grandfather’s funeral, one of those mandatory family events that make normally sensible people go completely insane.

In one corner of the apartment-turned-boxing-ring is Jonah’s ostentatiously devout cousin Daphna (Rachel Salowitz), a senior at Vassar College who just. can’t. shut. up. The torrent of opinions spewing from her mouth is overpowered only by her certainty.

“Am I right, or am I right?” she says during one of her speeches about her upcoming move to Israel, her Israeli boyfriend, or the current state of Jewish socio-political assimilation in modern American culture.

Or something like that. It’s hard to keep up.

Her knowledge is so vast and wide that she even knows what everyone else thinks, too. Just ask her.

But even mighty Daphna meets her match in the opposite corner, where Jonah’s high-strung older brother (Brian Vaughn) has no patience for her grandstanding. He’s relinquished most of his Jewish roots – forgoing his Hebrew name, Shlomo, in favor of Liam – but still wants to inherit the tiny golden necklace their grandfather hid under his tongue for two years during the Holocaust.

It’s the necklace, of course, that ignites the family feud, and Salowitz and Vaughn rise ferociously to the challenge.

The cousins’ nastiness is only highlighted by Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, a classically trained but terrible opera singer who just wants everyone to make nice. (The actress, Angela Stettler, is too smart for the role, but costumer Kelley Marie Schaefer’s puffy pink vest and Ugg boots help her project an airy sweetness.) Ironically, the only real arias come not from Melody, whose attempt at singing is hilariously painful, but Daphna and Liam, whose tuneless tirades occasionally rise to the level of poetry.

Salowitz, a Des Moines native, brought Vaughn with her during her recent return from some acting stints in New York, where both actors apparently learned a thing or two about hard-edged, in-your-face personalities. They toss insults at each other with an articulate precision this stage hasn’t seen since Mark Gruber and Kim Grimaldi nearly drew blood last year in Repertory Theater of Iowa’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

They argue about religion, of course, but most of their disagreements have less to do with Judaism than family traditions and cultural assimilation. Do we choose our identities or inherit them? What happens when traditions die?

They’re interesting questions even if the caustic ranting starts to fizzle a bit after the 90-minute show’s climax, when the apartment’s wall clock pushes past midnight. (Scenic designer Tim Wisgerhof and carpenter Paul Mostrom’s set looks real enough to lease.)

But minute for minute, this show may be one of the best you’ll see in a long time. It’s calibrated like “Doubt,” another story with religious themes whose characters yank your loyalties back and forth.

By the end, though, you’ll side with Jonah, who never wanted to take sides at all.