Writer: Joshua Harmon
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Cultural diversity and preserving the traditions of the various elements of society is an important thing. But at the same time an ideal world would have people putting aside their differences and embracing inclusivity. Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive but increased globalisation is both a way into recognising diversity and a tool for homogeneity. Joshua Harmon’s comedy drama Bad Jews uses the funeral of a grandparent to examine the effects of cultural preservation and assimilation on a younger generation.
Bad Jews moves from the St James’s to the Arts Theatre, and is the latest in a series of high-profile West End transfers which have included The Nether, the Royal Court’s chilling examination of internet worlds and the Young Vic’s monumental View from the Bridge. While all these productions were originally staged not that far from central London, extending their overall run in this way gives more people a chance to see them, and in the case of Bad Jews is a welcome addition to the few comedies available.
On the day of their grandfather’s funeral, brothers Jonah and Liam are thrown together with their insufferable cousin Daphna and Liam’s girlfriend Melody. While cooped up together in Jonah’s studio flat, they dredge up family rivalries, share memories of their childhoods and eventually turn on each other as they begin to question each other’s religious and social choices. Joshua Harmon’s witty script is a nicely balanced dramatic comedy, which has a light American sitcom feel initially yet still raises some pertinent, but unanswered, questions about the rôle of tradition and modernity.
The real success of Harmon’s play is in the cleverly drawn characters who give an exasperating sense of shared history and annoyances, as well as being individually drawn and motivated. There was a convincing feel of awkwardness among people who don’t see each other that often, as well as alliances being drawn up as they jockey for position. In some sense they are all ridiculous, and much of the comedy derives from the fact that they take their own views very seriously, yet at various times the audience sympathises with each character.
The mutual loathing between Daphna and Liam is genuinely funny; cleverly, much of this is implied separately by the characters before we see them come together, and it also was nice to see this tempered occasionally with moments of bonding that varied the mood and felt natural for a group of people who had a long family history. Ilan Goodman’s Liam was very tightly wound and particularly good when ranting extensively about Daphna, as the suppressed frustration comes pouring out – it was a fantastic scene which rightly earned some mid-performance applause.
Jenna Augen’s earnest Daphna is a great creation, deeply neurotic and unable to resist belittling the choices of her companions, but Augen gives her a naivety that makes her appealing. Gina Bramhill is Melody the outsider and makes the most of her hilarious singing moment, while Joe Coen has the least to do as Jonah but is suitably frustrated by the fallout in his living room.
Bad Jews is a both a great comedy and layered drama that effortlessly combines various themes of family discord including money differences, religious interpretation and domestic competition. It may be a little unlikely that individuals would be able to rant for several minutes without the slightest objection by the person they are criticising, but the monologues are so funny it doesn’t matter. In a classic characters trapped in a small space scenario, this play raises plenty of interesting points about the preservation of traditions and cultural differences in modern society. And with comedies in short supply, Bad Jews is a welcome arrival in the West End.
Runs until30 May 2015 | Photo Robert Workman