Life & Culture

Bad Jews theatre review: A slow return for an excellent comedy

There are pauses long enough to pitch a tent in this production of Josh Harmon’s excellent play



For the second time in as many weeks a quintessentially American Jewish comedy feels as if it has a ball and chain attached to its ankle. The dialogue in the current revival of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at Sonning was performed at almost slo-mo speed compared to the way Jewish New York-ese should be spoken.

And now in the early reaches of Josh Harmon’s excellent play there are pauses long enough to pitch a tent.

This is the Michael Longhurst production that marked the play’s (and Harmon’s) triumphant UK debut in 2005. Back then Transport For London revealed its tin ear on the subject of antisemitism by banning the poster because of the title, revealing how dumb well-meaning gestures can be.

The play’s return sports a brand-new cast who tackle the uninterupted 90 minutes of Jewish mortal combat under the guidance of “Revival Director” Jon Pashley.

The pressure-cooker setting is a tiny New York apartment occupied by Jonah (Charlie Beaven), his brother Liam (Ashley Margolis) and their cousin Daphna (Rosie Yadid). They are the grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor who recently died.

Also present is Ashley’s very blonde, gentile girlfriend Melody (Olivia de Andersen) with whom Liam arrives from a skiing trip in Aspen, though too late for the funeral earlier in the day.

For conflict — and there is a lot of conflict — Harmon picks at the fault line that separates two kinds of Jew: the Jew for whom Jewishness is merely a fact of birth and the Jew for whom Jewishness has to be expressed in every possible way, at every opportunity, often as a form of virtue signalling.

Liam is the former, revelling, to Daphna’s annoyance, in his “bad Jew” notoriety by eating biscuits during Passover. Daphna is the latter, which triggers Liam’s shocking and funny speech in which he targets every facet of Daphna’s Jewishness down to her “f***ing Jewish hair”.

However, the spark to this powder keg is their grandfather’s chai which he hid in his mouth while in a concentration camp and which Daphna considers to be rightfully hers because she is, after all, the most committed Jew in the room. Liam intends to repurpose the chai during his marriage proposal to Melody and present it to her instead of a ring.

Harmon’s genius is that his combatants are as infuriating in their behaviour as there are compelling in their argument. But this balance is often lost when the production opts for heavy-handed bluntness instead of nuance.

The scene in which Melody demonstrates her love of music by singing Gershwin’s Summertime should be excruciating.

The rendition should be good enough to justify Melody’s previous ambition to be an opera singer yet bad enough to show how misplaced that hope was. Yet her singing is so beyond belief awful the comedy of the situation is lost.

Meanwhile Daphna’s all-important provocations are more often rooted in a mean streak rather than the (more interesting) unfiltered expressions of her intelligence.

Still, the ensemble generates enough heat and passion to make the evening work, Andersen and Beaven provide good support as the collateral damage caused by the other two, and with the arrival of Margolis’s Liam, the ball and chain is finally shed.

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