Review: Bad Jews


This rather brilliant New York play by Joshua Harmon is given an added massive dose of poignancy by coincidentally opening in the anniversary week of Auschwitz's liberation. In this unintended context there is something particularly remarkable about the way Harmon explores how post-Holocaust Jewish generations live with the legacy of the Shoah. Remarkable, because whereas most dramatists would address that territory with sombre respect Harmon does it with irreverent wit.

The play's two main protagonists are cousins Daphna (Jenna Augen) and Liam (Ilan Goodman) who are staying in Liam's tiny New York apartment. They have come together to mark the passing of their Grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Also present is Liam's blonde, Delawarian, very gentile girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) and his younger brother Jonah (Joe Coen).

In any circumstances fitting four people into the studio apartment would have been a squeeze. But Daphna and Liam have a history of not getting on. There was that time, remembers Daphna, when during Passover her father read a passage in Hebrew - "which God forbid one does at Passover" - and Liam gave his then girlfriend (also not Jewish) a look that said "I'm above all this."

In short Daphna, who has thick black "Jewish hair" and is going to live in Israel, ostentatiously wears her Jewishness on her sleeve whereas Liam sort of hides his Jewishness – how to put it – behind his lapel? Tension between the cousins is at an all time high after Liam missed Poppy's funeral earlier in the day and Daphna realises the Chai that Poppy managed to keep under his tongue for two years in a concentration camp, and which is the only thing of Poppy's that she wants for herself, is in the possession of Liam.

Michael Longhurst's production is beautifully judged and performed. Sure it gets shouty at times – there are three Jews in one room – but never in a gratuitous way. That's largely because Harmon's script is so psychologically astute. He gets exactly right the kind of mutual antipathy that only Jews with different kinds of Jewishness can feel for one another. And Goodman's Liam, for whom Daphna's brand of Jewishness comes across as self-righteous, expresses that fury to the hilt. Augen's Daphna meanwhile is more than his match. Fiercely intelligent, she is also ruthless in argument. Polite conversation with Melody, ends up with Daphna hilariously and persuasively accusing Melody's antecedents of being complicit in the genocide of "indigenous Delawareans.'' As badly as these Jews behave to one another, there is something life affirming about how they grapple with the legacy of their grandfather's experience. And with Auschwitz casting a shadow over even the funniest moments of this comedy, you can't ask more of a play than for life to be affirmed.

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