Joshua Harmon’s hilarious Bad Jews, transferring to the St James from Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio,begins with the awkwardness of a family brought together under less than ideal circumstances and breaks out into just over an hour and a half of explosive dialogue acted and directed with taught precision.
When their Papi dies, Jonah (Joe Coen) and his cousin Daphna (Jenna Augen) are forced to share a room after the “intensely…intense” Jewish funeral. Jonah’s brother Liam (Ilan Goodman), the family’s prodigal son and self-proclaimed ‘bad Jew’, arrives with a blonde bobble-headed girlfriend in tow (Gina Bramhill as Melody) and the battle lines are drawn. Papi’s ambiguous will left a condemning question mark over the ownership of his chai, a sacred piece of jewellery that survived the Holocaust. While Daphna believes she should get it on account of her stronger interest in the religion they share to a greater or lesser extent, Liam – as the eldest male – is not about to back down. Hostility lurks behind every word and a conversation about an innocuous tattoo turns to talk of Auschwitz in moments.
The snappy ensemble piece is punctuated by some brilliant solo moments including Liam’s apoplectic rant when the studio confinement becomes too much. Jenna Augen gives a particularly incredible performance as dislikeable Daphna, riddled with rage and all the clichés of Jewish women and liberal American college students. She’s feisty, confrontational and always ready with a snarky quip or question. She screams “I’m not a dog!” at one point but she sniffs out weakness like a bloodhound and attacks like a particularly savage and determined Rottweiler.
Silent peacekeeper Jonah watches most of the argument from the sidelines, cowering in the kitchen looking anxious – and he has good reason to be so terrified. Religion is yielded like a weapon by both sides: Daphna criticises Liam’s apathy while he attacks her holier than thou “fanaticism”.
Mourning Papi brings up the thorny issues of remembrance and the legacy not just of their grandfather but of his religion. Over the course of Harmon’s play, the next generation suddenly realise the weighty responsibility for preserving memory and tradition they’re shouldered with and they’re scared. Are they Bad Jews? Not really – they’re just surviving as best they can in their circumstances, a little like the survival of Judaism and the survival of their Papi in the concentration camps.
The climax of the play is fast paced and fantastic, descending into mudslinging, violence and one-liners like “Do not Holocaust me!” Bad Jews is laugh-out-loud funny but also provocative and lingering. It’s a play about one specific family but there’s something here for everyone, Jewish or not, be that a cultural warning or just a good chuckle.