Writer: Joshua Harmon
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
A play set in the aftermath of a funeral promises heightened emotions, family discord and most likely a disputed inheritance. When the deceased is a Holocaust survivor and three of the four characters are his grandchildren, you can add the provocative potential of lacerating, darkly comic argument to the mix.
Bad Jews begins quietly enough in the Manhattan apartment that Jonah and his brother Liam’s parents have bought for them, a tiny but well-equipped studio with a view of the Hudson from its bathroom window. Jonah (Joe Coen) is sleeping on the sofa bed and cousin Daphna has a mattress; returned from seeing their beloved grandfather Poppy laid to rest, they discuss the events of the day. Foremost in Daphna’s mind is what should happen to the one item of religious significance that Poppy has left, a memento which, as the only grandchild still upholding traditional Jewish beliefs, she believes she should rightfully inherit.
It’s when Liam arrives with his latest girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow, having missed the funeral because he lost his cell phone while skiing in Aspen, that the atmosphere becomes instantly charged. Accusations fly back and forth as Daphna and Liam revive their deep-seated enmity with diametrically opposed views about the nature of Jewish faith and identity and its place in present day America. Picking at each other’s weaknesses with echoes of the same words, the fiercely intelligent Daphna lashes out at Liam’s lack of respect for centuries of tradition while he responds by accusing her of holding ideas of racial purity more akin to the Nazis. Above all, Liam has reasons of his own for believing Poppy’s most precious inheritance is his and that he alone should be able to decide its future.
The cast is superb and Jenna Augen and Ilan Goodman in particular portray the friction between Daphna and Liam, two sides of the same spirited coin, with great conviction. The tension is palpable and, after a slightly hesitant beginning, under Michael Longhurst’s assured direction highs and lows are well-paced. Furious argument is relieved by moments of tenderness as the cousins recall a disastrous family celebration at a Japanese restaurant and pure comedy as Melody, the conciliatory non-Jewish girl from Delaware who doesn’t even know her own origins, is persuaded to demonstrate her operatic skills. The set design, a central living area allowing escape or banishment to the bathroom and angry asides in the hallway, cleverly adds to the overall dynamism of this production.
Joshua Harmon’s provocatively-titled Bad Jews was first seen in New York in 2012 and his writing delivers strong characters whose words and ideas, although unflinching, today seem more urgently relevant than ever. As the arguments circle with little chance of resolution by the next generation, by the end we’re forced to confront what has so far been overlooked.
We’ve become used to expecting great things of the Ustinov and their latest UK premiere of an new American play is no exception; it’s a funny and intense, savagely satisfying and ultimately moving experience to uncover the power of silence amid the onslaught of words.
Runs until 30th August 2014