I feel a strong inclination to preface this review with a plea not to be deterred by the name of this work. Put simply, Bad Jews is a very good play.
Written by American playwright Joshua Harmon, its focus on the dysfunctional behaviour of members of a Jewish family will resonate more universally than the title suggests. It’s a reminder of the meaningless conflicts that consume families the world over, where people can tend to forget why they even began to fight in the first place.
In Bad Jews, a much-loved grandfather dies and members of his family come together in a Manhattan apartment on the day of his funeral. His granddaughter Daphna (Maria Angelico) is overbearing, domineering and, at times, exasperating. She is militant in her religious beliefs.
On the evening in question, Daphna is sharing the apartment with her cousin, Jonah (Matt Whitty). A mild-mannered college student, he’s a stark contrast to Daphna and determined not to cause trouble with or for anyone.
Late in the evening, Jonah’s brother, Liam (Simon Corfield) arrives at the apartment with his girlfriend, Melody (Anna Burgess), after a short vacation on the ski slopes of Aspen. Liam is wealthy and successful, the golden boy of his family. And Melody is sweet and kind, and from the moment she arrives on stage, it’s clear she’s more ‘all-American girl’ than Daphna will be able to take.
The dialogue Harmon has written for Daphna and Jonah in the initial minutes of the piece are extremely effective in establishing Daphna’s character for the audience. That’s essential because once you understand her personality – her prying nature, her relentless pursuit of a line of questioning – you realise that when she interacts with someone other than Jonah, who’s perhaps less averse to a confrontation, what could conceivably happen is anyone’s guess!
And sure enough, a conflict of epic proportions is precisely what’s in store. The catalyst for the central argument that ensues between Daphna and Liam centres which of the two has the greater entitlement to their late grandfather’s Chai medallion. The conflict moves between moments of seriousness, quickly followed by events that generate ample laughs.
As Daphna, Angelico has an enormous task on her hands, but is outstanding right throughout the piece. Much of her dialogue requires delivery at a rather relentless pace, and yet feels organic, consistently matched with thoughtful facial expressions and gestures. This ensures her Daphna is the highly intelligent but eccentric, neurotic and insensitive woman she needs to be, in order for the work to have its maximum impact. Angelico’s is a highly skilled performance that, as audience members, looks exhausting, though there’s certainly no lack of energy on her part.
Corfield convinces from the get go as the high-achiever, Liam, whose history of being incensed by Daphna clearly reaches back a long way. Whitty has the least amount of dialogue with which to work (particularly as the piece progresses), but shows impressive comedic ability through body language and movement, which beautifully convey exactly how he feels at each point of the story. As an audience, we’re certainly sympathetic to his plight, as the member of the group wishing everyone would just abandon their quarrels.
And Burgess is an absolute delight as Liam’s charming but naïve girlfriend, who gets some of the evening’s greatest laughs through her hysterical performance of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. Her performance demonstrates skilful comedic timing, evidenced by both dialogue delivery and carefully measured responses to events.
In short, the poignant satire that is Bad Jews would certainly be less memorable in less capable hands than the stellar cast director Gary Abrahams has assembled for this Australian tour.
All in all, Bad Jews is both an affecting and hilarious evening at the theatre. Even if ‘shalom’ has never been a part of your own vocabulary, you’ll likely find yourself drawn in by the fact that this story is reminiscent of events occurring in the homes of families of all faiths (or no faith) across the world on a daily basis. It speaks to our ability to be lured into argument for argument’s sake, and to cling onto a particular perspective with both hands despite perhaps not truly being invested in what lies at the core of the dispute. Potentially, the message at the heart of Bad Jews is to be cognisant of that behaviour before it’s too late.
Bad Jews plays the Seymour Centre until June 4 before limited seasons in Brisbane and Perth. You can find all of the details here