Bad Jews is quite the title. It gives you just the right amount of wince to get you interested – a play that’s playing hard to get. It also seems to have an accessible whiff of self-deprecation about it, giving you the all-clear to laugh. Bad Jews has done the trick though: reeled us all in, landing itself a West End transfer at the small but perfectly-formed Arts Theatre, nestled secretively behind Leicester Square. I, at nearly five foot tall, found myself there seated behind a pillar with not so much of a restricted view, as no view.
I was lucky, then, that Bad Jews isn’t dependent upon a flashy set or epic dance routines, but on intricately full-bodied characters. Four people in one studio flat with four very different opinions and methods of expression. A patriarchal grandfather has died, taking with him the deepest root of their family, the first-hand connection to the heritage they so ardently defend. He has left behind one heirloom that is of religious, romantic and traditional significance. It’s survival of the fittest as three cousins have to fight between themselves for possession of it. Devoutly Jewish Daphna (Jenna Augen) believes she deserves it on religious grounds. She is pretentiously passionate and as dedicated to incessantly proving her point as she is to her religion, whatever point that may be, whether or not she fundamentally believes it: we all know a Daphna. She is expertly timed and intentionally annoying. Her cousin Liam (Ilan Goodman) is just as headstrong and believes he was given the heirloom to fulfil its romantic legacy; his brother Jonah (Joe Coen), quietly and sincerely doesn’t want to get involved. The narrative snowballs along as the family lose all sight of what they are fighting for somewhere in the thrill of the fight itself.
The most endearing feature of the play is that it’s actually completely universal. Daphna, Liam and Jonah fight, undermine and backstab with a level of spitting venom that only exists within families. The pinnacle section that struck the biggest chord with me was Goodman’s heated and insult-bombarding monologue about Daphna, which is so electric and relentless that it manifests into a breakdown. Goodman’s performance is both manic and comedic, balancing his sense of timing as he covers every possible emotion in a short space of time. Daphna emerges from the bathroom, in feigned innocence, and within seconds has her cousins collapsing with laughter as she anecdotes a family birthday. This pivotal change in mood holds its own hilarity because of how recognisable it is, and how easily it could be attributed to any family in the history of the world.
On a similar note of universality, Joshua Harman also taps into how the attachment between heritage and identity is becoming more and more diluted with each generation that goes by. As diversity and multi-culturalism swell along with happy determination, the linear nature of each individual’s cultural customs and roots loses focus and importance. I reckon that this is the key to Bad Jews because it rings true with everybody. It is the desperate clinging onto the something once it has already begun to go that hits home with the audience.
I can’t say I belly-laughed at any point, but I was tickled and lightly amused by the all-too-familiar dimensions of the family dynamic. But then, who’s to say how much physicality was intercepted by the pillar between me and the stage.
Bad Jews is playing at the Arts Theatre until 30 May. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website. Photo by Robert Workman.