I’d estimate that at least half the audience at Bad Jews are having an uncomfortable flashback while they watch. Joshua Harman’s play, which first premiered Off-Broadway ten years ago, is unnervingly successful at capturing the impossibility of family communication, especially in light of grief.
We’re stuck in Jonah’s confined New York City apartment, where, as visiting cousin Daphna points out, “you can see the Hudson River from the bathroom window.” It’s small but not pokey, and in such a central location, probably worth over a million dollars.
In this physically confined space, Jonah’s ambivalence about his privilege riles Daphna, especially because his parents bought him the flat. The tension is cranked up another twenty notches when even more privileged cousin Liam and his charming but straightforward girlfriend Melody turn up late to mourn the passing of their grandad.
Daphna and Liam fight over their grandfather’s chai, a piece of jewellery which survived years in a concentration camp in the Second World War. Harmon has written some incredible monologues which the cousins deliver at each other like barbs. They’re a balance of witty one-liners, factual takedowns and emotional pleas which just about feel like they could be taken verbatim from an actual toxic family feud. It’s confronting stuff for anyone who’s ever had a serious family argument.
Harmon has created a genius bunch of relatable characters. Rosie Yadid is a ball of energy as the righteous Daphna, at first likeably moralistic but eventually so bent on sticking to the rules that she forgets to see outside of her own narrow viewpoint. Yadid is electric against Ashley Margolis’ paired back Liam, an infuriatingly lackadaisical guy, but one whose heart is probably in the right place.
Set in real time across one hour and forty minutes, the form adds more intensity, and with only a few metres of breathing space in the flat, with Richard Kent’s set extending to one claustrophic corridor outside of the apartment, we’re reminded that when an argument is provoked in real life, we often have no choice but to see it out, simply due to the nature of our environment.
Bad Jews is also a black comedy, and perhaps cleverest of all are the genuinely funny lines, though not all of the light-hearted parts worked for me. That said, Olivia Le Andersen is a constant giggle being generally overwhelmed by everything as Melody.
I also had the nagging sense that, at least in my experience, grief is the one time that dysfunctional families do actually pull together – it’s the rest of the time that they don’t.
Overall though, Harmon’s piece, with its simmering final plot reveal, is a crushing portrait of the complexity of perspective and value systems when it comes to navigating family life.
Bad Jews plays at the Arts Theatre until 25 September; tickets are available here