Bad Jews

Theatre, Comedy
4 out of 5 stars
Bad Jews 2016 production image 01 photograph Jeff Busby
Photograph: Jeff Busby

Joshua Harmon's hair-raising comedy arrives in Sydney via Broadway, the West End and Melbourne

Despite what the provocative title suggests, Joshua Harmon’s play Bad Jews is not so much about “bad” Jews, as it is the question “Is it even possible to be a good Jew in the 21st century?”

It’s also about the pressure felt by a generation who’ve never experienced abject terror and pain, but remain within touching distance of it. But, more than anything else, it’s about a vicious, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, family bust-up. That theme is something even gentiles can relate to (although when we attended, on the Sabbath no less, the crowd felt more Jewish than not).

The play’s events take place over one night, in a New York studio apartment overlooking the Hudson River. Pappi, the Holocaust surviving patriarch of the family, has died, bringing together cousins Jonah (whose parents own the bedsit) and Daphne. When Jonah’s older brother Liam shows up with his gentile girlfriend Melody – having missed the funeral while skiing in Aspen – tension levels begin to rise.

Family politics aside, Bad Jews treads highly culturally specific territory. The play’s central conflict is around which of the grandchildren will get Pappi’s Chai (that’s a gold medallion, not a cup of tea). For Australian audiences,  its territory that will be familiar from American pop culture; the dynamics feel a lot like Transparent without the Trans, or anything that Larry David has had a hand in.

The territory of Harmon’s play is at times, a little too well worn. Pushy, bushy haired, loud-mouthed Daphne is a collection unpleasant clichés that made this bushy haired, loud-mouthed Jewish woman feel a little uncomfortable, though she is played with great pathos and even better zingers by Maria Angelico.

All the actors have a gift for physical comedy; Matt Whitty as the shy, “leave me out of it” Jonah, does a fantastic job of looking like he wants to turn himself inside out, and brings gravity to the show’s surprisingly emotional conclusion. Simon Corfield as shallow, detached and self-obsessed Liam is deliciously loathsome, while Anna Burgess as a “golly gee” Taylor Swift type (the only gentile in the room), earns two of the biggest laughs of the night.

In comedy, the thinking goes that there’s nothing funny about emotionally stable people with their lives together. Bad Jews has none of those. Instead, if you attend, you’ll be spending the evening with a group of rude, argumentative narcissists who manage to make hurling the c-bomb at each other highly entertaining. It’s a very Jewish way of doing humour. And if that’s your bag, it’s very good.

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