Bad Jews (Arts Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2022 in Uncategorized
Photo: xzEllie Kurttzj

Writer: Joshua Harmon

Director: Jon Pashley


There must be something really good about Bad Jews. Repeated appearances in the West End over a period of more than seven years indicate enduring popularity with audiences. The play, an aggressive, dark comedy by American writer Joshua Harmon, premiered in New York in 2013 before opening at the Ustinov Studios in Bath in 2014 with a production which transferred to London. 

In similar fashion to the hit musical Book of Mormon, the comedy satirises features of a religious group, pushes hard against the boundaries of good taste and, seemingly, ends up offending nobody. It is the perfect antidote to the anodyne comedies that can emerge from over-adherence to modern codes of political correctness.

Harmon gets away with it simply because his depiction of dysfunctional Jewish family life is laugh-out-loud funny for nearly all of its 90 minutes running time (no interval). Jonah and Liam are brothers, Daphna is their cousin and the three are temporarily corralled together in Jonah’s New York studio apartment in order to attend the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Daphna brandishes her Jewishness like a medal of honour, Liam, who arrives with his girlfriend a day late, is more respectful towards Japanese culture than his own and Jonah just wants to be left out of the rows that inevitably ensue. 

The play’s opening scene is slow; it takes a few minutes for it to register just how much of a horror Rosie Yadid’s Daphna is; her self-righteousness and her use of tactless, acid put-downs to bulldoze over her kin are a shocking joy. She is the Jewish matriarch of countless New York comedies, albeit at least 20 years younger than those stereotypes. “Pappy” left a family heirloom and she wants it, but Liam actually has it, paving the way for total warfare. Ashley Margolis’ Liam is a picture of suppressed rage until Daphna exits to the bathroom, when he lets rip with a marathon rant, one of the play’s great set pieces. 

Another highlight follows when the ironically named Melody (Olivia Le Andersen), Liam’s demure, non-Jewish girlfriend, gives an excruciating rendition of Summertime from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Underlying all the hilarity, Harmon is questioning the places of faith and tradition in the modern world and showing us how the behaviour of both Daphna and Liam is equally reprehensible; she is flaunting hollow, materialistic values and he is denying his heritage, while secretly clinging to it. Poignantly, the seemingly passive Jonah (Charlie Beaven) demonstrates that there is a more dignified way to balance conflicting forces. 

For this revival, Jon Pashley takes over the director’s reins from Michael Longhurst, ensuring maximum mayhem in a minimum of space. In Richard Kent’s design for the cramped studio apartment, there is barely room for the actors to move without tripping over a makeshift bed and the conflict, often raucous, is up close and personal. It will be bad news if Bad Jews does not go on reappearing for some considerable time to come.

Performance date: 26 July 2022

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