Jews Behaving Badly At St James Theatre
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
If you’ve ever wondered what it means to be Jewish, or the challenges an ancient religion faces in the modern age, then Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is the show for you. Ironically though, in posing these questions, more are raised than actually answered.
What appears initially to be a story about a family sitting shiva after its patriarch's funeral, becomes an examination of how a death in the family can engulf relatives into multi-generational mire over widely disparate views on their religious beliefs.
The show opens with Jonah (played by Joe Coen) and Daphna (Jenna Augen) anxiously awaiting the arrival of their cousin Liam (Ilan Goodman) and his girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) following the funeral. Beautiful lighting by Richard Howell casts silhouettes across a colourful set haphazardly strewn with bedding which seems uncomfortably and hopelessly stuck in transition. Sounds of sirens authenticate the NYC setting.
When Liam and Melody arrive, long and deep rooted hostilities boil over as Daphna and Liam dispute the rightful owner of a family heirloom with historical and religious significance.
The acting is as impressive as the characters are complex, and Harmon’s script triggers deeply sensitive Jewish stereotypes and identifiers — stingy types, Jews as ‘chosen people’, and painful memories of the Holocaust.
Most absorbing is Daphna, a highly troubled woman whose biting sarcasm and intolerable criticism of others only serves to appease her own confused sense of self-righteousness. Despite her unsympathetic nature, you can’t help but agree with her at times. Liam on the other hand clearly struggles with his Jewish identity, as evidenced by his misplaced obsession with Japanese youth culture and his non-Jewish girlfriends.
Harmon effectively lays out the modern spectrum of Jewish identity with his juxtaposition of the two cousins: Daphna represents a generation holding onto tradition while Liam looks toward a secular future that openly questions, and even disobeys, the faith.
The only way out of the disagreement seems to be ploughing through it — with Liam’s disdain for Daphna reaching a terrifying climax. By the end of the finger-pointing, everyone seems deserving of the blame, except for the obnoxiously sweet Melody who eases the tension by providing comic relief with her dimwitted retorts, a badly sung song and some priceless facial expressions.
Less a raucous comedy and more a poignant examination and critique of what it means to be faithful, Bad Jews reminds us that the imposing demands of modernity are actively shaping our religious identity, thus making many long held religious norms increasingly irrelevant today (often replaced by a curiously unquestioned attachment to material goods).
So just when you think you couldn’t be more confused as to what constitutes a good versus a bad Jew, this show offers up a tricky, yet important modern lesson on faith: sometimes you must break from tradition in order to preserve it.
By Sophia Shluger
Bad Jews is on at the St James Theatre until 28 February. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 23 January 2015