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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the St. James


  Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen/ Ph: Robert Workman

Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, a brilliantly acerbic, intelligent new play from America, is generally considered to be a comedy. And while the lacerating wit in which its author so generously trades is often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s main theme, the corrosion of Jewish values and traditions in a fast-changing world, is serious.
The play relies on that faithful old standby – the family dynamic – heightened in this instance by issues of ethnic identity between the two leading characters, who are polar opposites in every respect. Diana (Jenna Augen), who prefers to be known by her Hebrew name Daphna, is an articulate, highly intelligent senior at Vassar in love with all things Israeli – including an Israeli soldier. Liam (Ilan Goodman), on the other hand, has completely discarded his Hebrew name (Schlomo) as well as his Judaism in general. He has a gentile girlfriend called Melody (Gina Bramhill), and couldn’t even be bothered to attend the funeral of his grandfather, Poppy, feebly blaming his absence on the vital loss of a cell phone.
In fact, when we first meet him, he and Melody have just flown in from a skiing trip to Aspen. There is a fourth member of the cast, Liam’s decidedly non-confrontational brother Jonah (Joe Coen, beautifully under-stated), who prefers to play video games rather than engage in the clash of family personalities – the fulcrum on which Bad Jews swings.
The play’s setting is a small New York studio apartment that Liam and Jonah’s well-heeled parents (who occupy a much larger apartment in the same building) have bought for them, and that Jonah has, for the last couple of days, been sharing with the less well-off Daphna.
If Liam and Daphna’s chalk-and-cheese personalities provide the play with its centrifugal force, the issue that provides both dramatic momentum and its slender narrative revolves around the possession of a chai (“living”) – a religious ornament that Poppy wore around his neck and that Daphna, who claims to be the only cousin who takes her Judaism seriously, wants to secure for herself. Liam, however, has other ideas, and when it is revealed that the chai is actually in his possession, having been given it by his mother, who in turn got it from Poppy before he died, the play accelerates to its emotional conclusion.
Just as Liam and Daphna lock antlers with one another in the manner of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf more than fifty years earlier, and just as Albee drew comic mileage from the humiliation of Honey in the earlier play, Harmon uses the character of Melody as the butt of some of Daphna’s cruelest barbs and taunts. The fact that Melody turns out to have been a music student who once studied singing (and has a treble clef tattooed onto her leg) cues in the play’s most toe-curling embarrassing sequences when Daphna insists that she sing "Summertime" for them all.
Throughout the play’s 90-minute running time, the cat-and-mouse game played between the combative cousins gathers pace and momentum, though structurally the play relies too frequently on various members of the cast leaving the stage for conveniently long bathroom breaks that allow for certain aspects of their characters to be ruthlessly put under a microscope. Turns out, though, that the apartment is so small, every cruel character analysis can be heard loud and clear. There’s even a scene in which the brothers go to their parents’ apartment, conveniently allowing Daphna and Melody some quality time alone.
Fortunately, the ending, which packs quite a punch, obliterates the play’s structural lapses, and the cast members, especially Augen, who is terrifyingly real as the multi-faceted Daphna – full of sweet reason one moment, consumed by anger and bile the next – are almost (not quite) as good as their New York counterparts.
Director Michael Longhurst keeps the thrust and parry of the action at a brisk pace, though the scene in which Daphna and Liam put their differences on hold for a few minutes as they reminisce about a Japanese meal and its gastric consequences the two families had years earlier, seemed forced and strained. Still, Bad Jews shapes up as one of the best new American plays in several years. And you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.


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