Theatre review: Bad Jews at the St James Theatre

l-r: Jenna Augen, Gina Bramhill and Ilan Goodman in Bad Jews at the St. James Theatre. Picture: Robe

l-r: Jenna Augen, Gina Bramhill and Ilan Goodman in Bad Jews at the St. James Theatre. Picture: Robert Workman - Credit: Archant

Joshua Harmon’s razor-sharp play about Jewish culture could hardly be more timely, says Alex Bellotti.

There’s plenty of provocation in the title of Bad Jews alone and for those it offends, this witty, intelligent but brutally acerbic comedy is best avoided.

Joshua Harmon’s story starts amicably enough. Two cousins, Jonah (Joe Coen) and Daphna (Jenna Augen), are sitting around the former’s swish Manhattan apartment, exchanging pleasantries about university following the funeral of their grandfather, Papi.

While rich kid Jonah sloths around infectiously, Daphna radiates nervous energy. Upon the entrance of Jonah’s brother, Liam (Ilan Goodman), and his girlfriend, Melody (Gina Bramhill), this energy quickly gives way to dark, scything satire as Daphna learns they missed the funeral to go on a skiing holiday in Aspen. When the cousins further clash over who inherits Papi’s treasured ‘chai’ medallion, chaos erupts.

Crucially for a show where four actors simply talk in a room with little musical or visual accompaniment, the language and performances are razor sharp. “Super Jew” Daphna naturally steals the show, but Augen is superb: setting upon her prey with such lack of restraint it would make Larry David blush.

Take her typical putdown of airy gentile Melody (elevated beyond ‘bland blonde’ stereotypes through Bramhill’s precise comic timing). When the latter explains that her ankle tattoo of a treble clef reminds her of the time she spent training as an opera singer, Daphna quips, “Is your name not enough?” Alone, it’s a sly joke, but eventually such jabs pile up with the ruthlessness of a heavywright boxer.

The impressive emotional depth of Daphna’s main duelling partner, Liam – a Kosher-busting “bad Jew” intruigingly also played by Goodman with plenty of camp – does perhaps leave Daphna’s vulnerability slightly underexplored. As the play crescendos however, its free-flowing themes begin to weave and the similarities between the two become all too apparent. It suggests that culture, heritage and tradition are both fragile yet inescapable parts of who we are and in a time where race and religion are discussed as heatedly as ever, this production could hardly feel more timely.

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Rating: 4/5 stars