Performing Arts

A family brawl takes center stage in Unicorn Theatre’s ‘Bad Jews’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

Dina Thomas, left, and Mark Thomas play cousins in Joshua Harmon’s acerbic comedy “Bad Jews” at the Unicorn Theatre.
Dina Thomas, left, and Mark Thomas play cousins in Joshua Harmon’s acerbic comedy “Bad Jews” at the Unicorn Theatre. Special to The Star

If caustic dialogue and incendiary rhetoric is to your taste, then “Bad Jews” may be just the play for you.

This extended one-act by Joshua Harmon is labeled a comedy, and without doubt it brims with acrid humor, but it’s more than that. It’s a meditation on faith, an examination of Jewish identity and a consideration of the collective obligations imposed by history.

The production at the Unicorn Theatre, directed by Cynthia Levin, brings together four talented young actors who capture most of this pressure-cooker play’s strengths.

The premise brings together Daphna (Dina Thomas), an intense soon-to-be Vassar graduate; her two cousins, the reticent Jonah (Mark Thomas) and the verbally aggressive Liam (Doogin Brown); and Liam’s girlfriend, a blonde outsider named Melody (Erika Baker).

They’ve been thrown together in an apartment owned by Liam’s parents following the death of the cousins’ grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who lived a long life with a Nazi identification number tattooed on one arm. At the outset we meet the motor-mouth Daphna and the agreeable but noncommittal Jonah. Daphna believes she is the rightful heir to her grandfather’s chai -- a gold pendant symbolizing the Hebrew word for “life” which he managed to hide from his concentration camp guards.

When Liam and Melody arrive, the question of whether Daphna or Liam is the appropriate heir turns into a verbal knife fight of astounding intensity. The barbs and ferocious exchanges, as well as the acerbic monologues, are written with pitiless precision. Jonah remains an observer as Liam and Daphna savage each other, and Melody, the clueless gentile optimist, is manipulated by Daphna into humiliating herself.

In the final moments of this fast-moving 90 minutes, Harmon employs a revelation that underscores the serious intent driving this brutal comedy.

Dina Thomas is brilliant as the obsessive Daphna, putting on a showcase of comic timing in a performance of singular intensity. Daphna’s lines can be summed up simply as words, words and more words. Thomas handles it all with remarkable skill, hitting all the right comedic notes but never sacrificing the subtleties in Harmon’s nuanced script.

Brown proves to be an effective fencing partner as the decidedly secular Liam, bringing molten anger to center stage as Liam cuts down Daphna’s religious posturing with devastating logic.

Mark Thomas remains a focused presence onstage — sometimes the fun is watching Jonah watching other characters — and his thoughtful performance pays off at the play’s conclusion. As the superficial but fundamentally decent Melody, Baker walks a fine line between cartoonish ineptitude and genuine, if limited, empathy.

The design elements — scenic (Gary Mosby), lights (Victor En Yu Tan) and costumes (Ian R. Crawford) — are simple but effective.

The actors, of course, are one reason to this show. The other is Harmon’s play. Though not flawless, the script is written with breathtaking freedom. The monologues soar, the dialogue bites. Ultimately this show is about the power of words.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

“Bad Jews” runs through Nov. 16 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.

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