Playwright: Joshua Harmon. At: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $20-$36. Runs through: June 7
A chai is a kind of Jewish medallion, belonging, in this case, to a recently deceased clan patriarch and thus, coveted by two of his grandchildren, not for its material value, but for what it symbolizesand therein lies the source of the conflict in Joshua Harmon's play. Since hostilities commence mere seconds after the curtain rises and proceed to swiftly escalate at full-out take-no-prisoners volume, any personal information about the combatants soon becomes lost in the flying verbiage.
The setting is Manhattan's posh Riverside Drive, where the Haber sons share an apartment down the hall from their parents. Bunking with them while in town for the funeral is cousin Daphna ( née Diana ) from Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, a senior at Vassar College whose post-graduation plans center on joining her boyfriend in the Israeli army and pursuing rabbinical courseworkfealty to blood she believes entitles her to possession of the talisman her "poppy" protected through the holocaust. Older brother Liam, on the other hand, majors in Asian studies at the University of Chicago, where he met the conspicuously gentile girl friend to whom he wants to give the heirloom as a betrothal gift. Melody ( whose surname we never learn ), the recipient of this gesture, is a New England WASP more sweet than smart, while younger brother Jonah keeps his head down at school in Vermont.
So who loved Grandpa more? Does loyalty to kin lie in preserving the past or embracing the future? Does veneration of a physical object, however steeped in filial sentiment, border on idolatry? Theater Wit is marketing Harmon's play as a comedy, but the laughs dwindle very quickly. Liam vilifies his cousin with a vehemence horrifying his prospective fiancée, but Harmon, too, invites us to cringe in disgust at Daphna's self-righteousness, ignoring the desperate search for identity fueling her ethnocentricity. Ironically, the uproar generated by these equally stubborn zealots distracts us from suspicions regarding Jonah's passive demeanor and his downright creepy memorial to his late grandsire.
Luckily for director Jeremy Wechsler, comic actors are accustomed to playing extreme personality types, and so arrive with the stamina and vocal muscles necessary to emote in triple-forte without running out of breath for the ninety minutes before their author does. Cory Kahane, Erica Bittner, Ian Paul Custer and Laura Lapidus keep a firm grip on their larger-than-life characters and the even larger issues raised by their squabbles to emerging as more than talking/shouting heads, but people whom we might want to meet again a few years later.