Bad Jews

Joshua Harmon

Theatre Royal Bath Productions

The Quays Theatre at the Lowry

From 05 April 2016 to 09 April 2016

Review by Andrew Edwards

This dark comedy is Joshua Harmon’s first play which was a hit off Broadway some 4 years ago. The tour reaches The Lowry fresh from big success in a London West End revival at the Arts Theatre.

The title reveals the heart of the piece which is as much a debate about what it means to be a Jew at all in the present time as a warning that two of the characters on stage will engage in a war mostly of words. With shades of Albee and Mamet, each will behave very badly toward the other over the course of the rambunctious 100 minutes with no interval let up.

It’s late night and the family has just buried their patriarch, Poppy. Cousins Daphna and Jonah have convened in Jonah’s New York small studio apartment before the first full day of the Jewish ritual 7-day mourning period or Shiva begins in earnest. They are waiting for Jonah’s brother Liam and his not-Jewish girlfriend Melody to arrive. Liam has missed the funeral because they went skiing. This has in turn lit Daphna’s fuse.

The catalyst for the conflict is the debate over what should happen to the Chai—a family heirloom in the shape of the Hebrew word for life—which each of the principal cousins, Daphna and Liam, believes should belong to them. The dead Grandfather Poppy secreted this jewel in his mouth while he endured the death camps of the Holocaust. The unfolding extended argument over possession of this Chai which leads to physical violence reveals what each feels most keenly is the truth about their own and their cousin’s lives. It also explores the ownership of the Holocaust itself.

There are some stand-out comic sequences such as when the ill-named Melody seeks to calm tempers down by performing a squirmingly awful rendition of Gershwin’s "Summertime". There are some lovely ironies herein: the not-Jewish character singing a sublime work from a piece about the agonies of black life in the '20s written by a Jewish composer. The various confrontations between Daphna and Liam—whom she reveals has started out as Shlomo but changed his name to Liam—are very well staged. It's difficult for the audience to choose between them as both grate after a while, which is perhaps part of the point.

Understudy Vicki Davids shows Daphna's passionate self-belief. Though she will stop at nothing including aggressive manipulation in pursuit of her goal, it’s difficult not to feel stirred by her vigour. Ilan Goodman as Liam has an infectious manic energy which seems to belong to the work of Woody Allen in its frenetic neuroticism. His performance is perhaps a mite too broad although the audience lapped it up and he does get a lot of laughs out of his diatribes against Daphna both to her face and behind her back.

Antonia Kinlay in the less showy role of Melody has great comic timing in her performance of the aforementioned song. She has clearly stumbled into a war zone and is quite touching as she struggles to connect.

Perhaps the most difficult role in the quartet is that of Jonah. He has the least to say as he does not want to take sides in the dispute although both antagonists seek to draw him to their corners. Jos Slovick has a quiet strength which we do get to discover hides a depth of raw feeling for the loss of his grandfather.

The bonds of family are stretched to endurance in this piece though it doesn’t outstay its welcome. There is much bad language and some brief violence. After a slow start, the laughs build up by the time both Daphna and Liam share the stage. The audience was listening to the argument and laughing a lot in recognition whether they were Jewish or not.

While the idea of vituperative truth-telling during Jewish mourning is personally familiar to this reviewer, there is perhaps more of it here than sometimes fully credible. There is one sequence where the three cousins get to share a lovely family memory rolling in laughter on the bed as they do so. While this is as much a device to reveal Melody’s disconnect as a respite from the state of war, there could have been more of this.

It would also have been good to see more light and shade in the characterisations. Jonah’s reserve is as much a response to the overbearing nature of his brother and cousin as because he hasn’t that much to say here choosing to rise above conflict. The piece flows best when it’s a family squabbling about who owns the legacy and whose family story is true rather than when it tries to be a dispute between those who want to believe in something which has been around for thousands of years and those who do not.

The dispute over the inheritance of the Holocaust teeters on the edge of controversy. Is it appropriate for the generation which came after to continue to carry the weight of the loss but equally is it appropriate to suggest that it can not?

It’s not clear which side Harmon is on. Either those who believe that, as Liam puts it, Judaism is a watered-down version of something which was never true to begin with or Daphna who fervently believes that the longevity of the tradition is the key to its relevance.

Paradoxically for this reviewer, the worst and most egregious bad behaviour in the play is not in the fighting but the moment when Daphna seeking to score points from Melody as a miserly and thereby extremely un-Jewish hostess. Though it is very very funny, it is the most shocking moment in the entire evening.