Anais Nin, the Cuban – American author, is famously known for stating, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
The up-and-coming U.S. playwright, Joshua Harmon, has created a dynamic character study that exemplifies Nin’s quote to the fourth wall and beyond. His new comedy, ‘Bad Jews’, is also about stressful family ties, cultural and personal identity, grief, loss, change and entitlement.
Now playing in Melbourne at the Alex Theatre for a strictly limited season, the show recently had successful sell-out seasons on both Broadway in New York City and London’s West End.
With its provocative and attention – grabbing title, ‘Bad Jews’ doesn’t only target a particular demographic.
Previously, the likes of proto – feminist, Claire Boothe Luce (writer of ‘The Women’ in 1936) and gay activist, Mart Crowley (who penned ‘The Boys In The Band’ in 1968) created microcosms where their oppressed inhabitants, instead of running to each other’s sides in crisis, often became locked in mortal combat.
Though that is often the case with ‘Bad Jews’, here, its strong premise is much more universal.
For anyone that has attended family gatherings where disparate personalities are forced into close proximity, audiences will immediately connect with and relate to Harmon’s story.
Acted out in real time, at one hundred minutes in length, the work allows us tremendous insight into its quartet of players and their agendas.
Daphna, and her cousins, Jonah and Liam have recently lost their beloved grandfather, Poppy. ‘Bad Jews’ takes place in the strained aftermath of his funeral.
Further tensions between the characters are quickly established early.
Though Daphna is crashing at the brothers’ new apartment, she is upset that Liam has ‘accidentally’ missed the service. She also isn’t buying Jonah’s questionable explanation, as to why his older sibling was absent from proceedings all together.
The reason being, Liam and his WASP girlfriend, Melody, were skiing in Vail, when he lost his mobile phone in the snow. Having dropped it from a chair lift, all points of contact were cut, thereby missing both the news of their grandfather’s imminent passing and the small window to arrive back home in time.
Daphna also has her eye on a particular heirloom, Poppy’s Chai necklace, which she believes should be left to her. Liam has other plans for it, however, and it is this dilemma that forms the crux of the story.
Written less in the quirky styles of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David, Harmon’s characters are often driven by their determined need to be noticed and taken seriously. The playwright’s also refuses to it play safe and his unfiltered dialogue is much closer to David Mamet’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ or Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
It should be noted that all three relatives are at a major crossroad in their lives.
As Daphna, Maria Angelico is both the show’s villain and the story’s singular driving force. In her charge, Angelico’s Daphna is far too familiar with the other three, demands constant attention, and is always invading their personal spaces with her diva antics.
Daphna also says exactly what she thinks.
In particular, the boys’ cousin is disgusted with Liam for dating a woman both outside their shared faith and whom she judges to be his intellectual inferior. She also despises the ‘white bread’ lifestyle that Melody represents, and deliberately mispronounces her name, ‘Malody.”
One gets the sense as a child, that Daphna was an annoying and flirty little fat girl. Having vastly outgrown that routine and seeing herself slowly becoming invisible to those around her, Daphna is in the process of grown-up reinvention. She is studying Jewish law, and is planning a move to Israel to be with her army boyfriend.
Here, Harmon has potentially written one of the great female characters of the new millennium. He spars Daphna’s motives with Liam (played with coiled abandon by Simon Corfield) as the flipside to her unfettered rage.
Observing matters collapse around him, Matt Whitty’s Jonah communicates the right degree of hapless despair, and Anna Burgess as Melody, is hysterical as your stereotypical yet not-so-dumb blonde. Her moment in the sun is a rendition of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ that will leave viewers screaming with laughter.
Together, Kelsey Henderson (costume design), Dave Ellis (sound design), Rob Sowinski (lighting design), and Jacob Battista (set design), have composed a slick and considered viewing experience. Their combined attention to detail provides audience members with a bounty of visual clues and verbal insights into Harmon’s dysfunctional quartet.
That the brothers come from a wealthy, upper middle class family is established right off the bat. Sowinski and Battista lit and styled the fixed set to look like a pricey Manhattan studio apartment, complete with expensive kitchen appliances and tasteful, contemporary furnishing.
Clothes reveal a great deal about who we are, how we see ourselves, and the way others perceive us. Appearing to run with this theory, Henderson’s smart costume choices reinforce the emotional, cultural and class differences between Harmon’s four characters.
Jonah is comfortable in his boxer shorts and t – shirt. He also rocks the ‘floordrobe’ with a tailored mourning suit worn earlier in the day (and now tossed in a heap). Body – conscious Daphna wears oversized sweats. Liam and Melody, fresh from their skiing trip in Vail, look like they could have stepped out of Vogue or Vanity Fair.
Having reviewed his show, ‘Theatrics: The Wit And Wisdom Of Jewish Literature’ several weeks ago, Gary Abrahams demonstrates exceptional versatility as the director for both that production and now with Harmon’s play.
He clearly understands the natural ebb and flow of drama and comedy, their shared similarities and polemic differences. Especially, as each experience uses long monologues to communicate certain issues, Abrahams’ smart pacing always maintains our focus and interest.
If you thought your family was certifiable, think again. Expertly produced by the Vass Theatre Group, ‘Bad Jews’ plays until September 13.