A bitingly funny script – full of wit, irreverence and reverence – is the backbone of this comedic and dramatic play about cultural identity, which returns to the Alex Theatre for a short season.
A beloved grandfather has died and a treasured family heirloom with religious and cultural significance is up for grabs. But who is the most deserving of it? The contenders are all in their twenties. Is it the bossy, overbearing, fanatically religious Daphna or her wealthy cousin Liam, who has just returned from a skiing trip with his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody? The only other person with claims is Jonah, Liam’s younger brother, who would prefer not to get involved in a fight. Jonah and Liam’s parents have gifted the two of them a small Manhattan apartment (which has a killer view from the bathroom). That becomes the setting for this hilarious, at times vicious and deeply personal quarrel about family, faith and legacy. The action takes place at night, after their grandfather’s funeral.
This is edgy black comedy with no shortage of invective and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was actually sad it ended. It has been brilliantly conceived and written by New York playwright Joshua Harmon, now in his early 30s.
The controversial title came to Harmon after a service in honour of Holocaust Memorial Day that he found depressing and unmoving. He was at college and a group of students spoke about their grandparents’ experiences surviving the Holocaust. Harmon acknowledges that while the title makes some people decidedly uncomfortable and his grandmother asked him to change it, it refers to a particular generation. In fact, there is only one self-professed “Bad Jew” in the play … those two words being a reference to his non-observance.
It has been a resounding success on Broadway and on the West End and I can fully appreciate why. There are several threads that run through the play, which lasts for an hour and a half without interval. Among them are the issues of entitlement and earning a right to those riches, the importance of family tradition and marrying out. Although comedic and deliberately exaggerated for dramatic effect, Bad Jews also has moments of heartfelt pathos. Characters lurch from pathetic, sad and affronted to angry, audacious and strong. Be aware that in context the odd word spoken or “yelled” is particularly blue.
Masterfully directed by Gary Abrahams, who graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2009, Maria Angelico produces a star turn as the domineering Daphna. The man whom she incites to rage, Liam, is played by Simon Corfield, while Anna Burgess is cast as his girlfriend. The latter is totally unprepared and blindsided by the domestic “war zone” that she enters (she makes an art form of playing ditzy blonde). Not so, the confrontation-phobic Jonah, who clearly knows the kind of incendiary character that his cousin is, but would vanish from the scene if he could, only to return when calm was restored. Matt Whitty fills that role.
Get in quickly because Bad Jews is only playing at the Alex Theatre in St Kilda until 14th May. You won’t be disappointed.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television