'Bad Jews' review — a shouty revival pushes the play to breaking point

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Repeated viewings, not to mention a far-from-ideal cast, haven’t been kind to Bad Jews, the Joshua Harmon play that I first saw, and enjoyed, Off Broadway in 2012 and have now encountered in London, in a separate production, three times since.

This current iteration marks a restaging by Jon Pashley of the play’s 2015 London premiere, which was directed by Michael Longhurst and brought to attention the fine American actress Jenna Augen in the play’s defining role of the feisty, damaged Daphna.

A take-no-prisoners firebrand who is revealed by play’s end to also be a psychologically scarred fantasist, Daphna offers a bravura opportunity for an actress but a tricky one, as well. Tune out to her stridency, and you’ve more or less lost the play, given that she is its furious engine, for good or ill: you need to engage with her hairpin turns of emotion right up to the reckoning when Daphna quite literally gets pulled up short by her long, curly hair.

The role this time round is taken by Rosie Yadid, a newcomer now as Augen was then and a performer whose commitment to the part is never in doubt. But playing a fervently devoted Jew who locks horns over a family heirloom with a cousin, Liam, whose real name is actually Shlomo, Yadid sustains such a vitriolic pitch that she wears the audience out.

Liam may deride his cousin as a “super-Jew” quick to perceive slights at every turn, but there’s little denying that she’s exhausting company from whom anyone might well seek relief.

Such unbridled intensity poses a problem for the remaining actors, all of whom seem to have ramped up their responses to breaking point and beyond. You yearn for just a shred of calm and quiet as the stakes are raised, not to mention proper consideration given to infelicities in the plot that never really added up and do so now less than ever. (Characters at least twice retreat from view, but only once is something made of the obvious realisation that every loaded aspersion can be heard through the bathroom door.)

The situation is one of familial overcrowding: Daphna, short of money, arrives in Manhattan for the funeral of her beloved grandfather, or “poppy”, and finds herself sharing a studio apartment with her indrawn cousin, Jonah (Charlie Beaven, making his West End debut), and Jonah’s assimilationist sibling Liam (a manic Ashley Margolis), a PhD candidate who has missed the actual service but nonetheless arrives primed to do battle.

The quartet is completed by Liam’s blonde (that’s to say non-Jewish) girlfriend Melody (Olivia Le Andersen), who has studied opera at college but somehow can’t manage a decent impromptu rendition of “Summertime” – a scene entirely at the expense of the character that seems crueller with every renewed exposure: Liam claims to admire Melody’s “purity”, which is a bit rich when Harmon holds that very character in such contempt.

Daphna, meanwhile, has never heard of Porgy and Bess, a cultural gap that itself seems odd given that she can hold forth on Jews who have won the Nobel Prize and is quick to correct the plural of syllabuses to syllabi. So how did the Gershwins pass her by?

Earlier accounts of this play communicated cross-currents of feeling that get lost in the shouty invective here: Jonah, for one, here seems less an emblem of attempted neutrality and more a cartoonish cipher whose climactic revelation isn’t remotely earned.

And the conception of Melody put me in mind this time round of Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another sweet-seeming outlier to the gathering anger who gets relegated offstage before returning in time to be reduced to a hysteric.

Harmon can pen barbs, that’s for sure, and it was interesting watching those near me recoil in shock or disbelief at some of the more coarse, crude remarks that detonate arguably more forcefully in our newly-sensitised times than they did a decade ago.

A prolonged set piece about the digestive fate of Jews who happen to eat at the Japanese restaurant Benihana seems as questionable as Melody’s final dismissal of the symbolically-laden medallion, or “chai”, that has been fought over during the preceding 90 minutes. “It was in someone’s mouth,” she says, disgusted, which is itself a disgusting thing to say within this context.

The rare play to use “Holocaust” as a verb, Bad Jews covers the waterfront when it comes to tethering one’s faith to the mast and the lengths to which people will go when ancestry is invoked, and self-identity, too. And yet, I’m not sure so exaggerated a renewal of this play is all that valuable when Harmon’s latest, the much-heralded, large-cast Prayer for the French Republic, remains unproduced this side of the Atlantic. Fully acquainted with this play and its nastiness, I’m now ready to be taken by the same playwright somewhere new.

Bad Jews is at the Arts Theatre to 25 September. Book Bad Jews tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Bad Jews cast (Photo courtesy of production)

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