Last year around this time, the Roundabout Theatre's minuscule, delightfully overachieving Black Box Theatre presented, to great acclaim, "Bad Jews," a serious comedy by newcomer Joshua Harmon. Like an earlier Roundabout commission -- Stephen Karam's extraordinary Pulitzer-
finalist, "Sons of the Prophet" -- the new play has graduated upstairs to a bigger showcase at the Pels Theatre. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this one.
Where "Sons of the Prophet" found subtle humor and heartbreak in a Lebanese-American family, "Bad Jews" creates a promising situation in a New York Jewish family and develops it with a sledgehammer. Two brothers and their female cousin arrive for the shiva of their beloved grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and find they must bunk together in the pied-a-terre of the two brothers' wealthier parents. One brother (Michael Zegen), an assimilated Jew named Liam, brings his gentile girlfriend (Molly Ranson). The other (Philip Ettinger) works hard to stay out of everyone's way.
This is almost impossible because, in the spinning vortex, is cousin Daphna, a Vassar student and poorer relation -- at first, presumably the "good Jew" -- obsessed with moving to Israel. Played like a force of nature -- albeit an overbearing and obnoxious one -- by the spectacular Tracee Chimo, Daphna has a mouth as wild as her hair.
But Daphna is a cartoon, the others are cardboard. The brutal conflict involves the inheritance of their grandfather's Chai, a symbol of life on a chain. But the real anxiety comes from the playwright's ugly trivialization of genuine ugly emotions.
WHAT "Bad Jews"
WHERE Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
INFO $77-$87; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Not smart enough to be so ugly