Bad Jews

Posted by Laurence Green

Don’t be put off by the provocative title of Joshua Harmon’s new play Bad Jews (St. James Theatre) as it is a penetrating and blistering funny study of faith favouritism and a family feud.

Bad Jews at St. James Theatre

A beloved grandfather has died and his three grandchildren gather in his cramped Manhattan apartment after the funeral. But what should be a time of union in sadness and respect turns into a vicious battle between the characters. The main quarrel is between mutually contemptuous cousins, bossy, overbearing and fanatically religious Daphna and wealthy Liam, a Chicago postgraduate over one object in the legacy of the recently deceased old man – his “Chai” a gold medallion bearing the Hebrew words for “life” which symbolised his boyhood suffering and survival in the concentration camps.

Michael Longhurst’s beautifully nuanced and absorbing production, first seen in New York in 2012, uses a family quarrel to raise resonant issues and examine the complexities of being Jewish in the modern world, while the strength of the combat between Daphna and Liam provides the play with its dramatic tension. As a character study of a group of disparate individuals only linked by the fact that they are all from the same family, it is both incisive and illuminating.

The production has just the right claustrophobic intensity and is acted with suitable passion. Jenna Augen is excellent as the sharp-tongued Daphna who represents an unquestionable belief in faith, tradition and ritual and plans to emigrate to Israel and join the army after college, and is convinced she should have the medallion. IIan Goodman is equally impressive as the pillow-pounding Liam, a self-styled “bad Jew” who has missed his grandfather’s funeral, is sceptical about religion and is devoting himself to Japanese studies. Joe Coen brings much needed warmth into the proceedings as his placid, fence-sitting brother, and Gina Bramhill is convincing as Liam’s attractive gentile girlfriend Melody who is humiliated by Daphna, especially after it is revealed that Liam’s romantic idea had been to present the treasured heirloom to her when proposing. I should add that Melody’s reaction of Summertime from Porgy and Bess is one of the funniest and most excruciating moments of theatre you are likely to see on the London stage.

Family wrangling has rarely been so entertaining as in this acute US comedy which could well feature in the forthcoming Oliver Theatre Awards.

Runs until 28 February 2015

Box office: 0844 264 2140

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