A fiery piece of writing with some of the best argument scenes I’ve seen in years. With just a dash of Jewish culture sprinkled on top.
“Bad Jews”: let’s talk about the title
Right off the bat, let me address the elephant in the room: the controversial title which has put the show into some trouble even before its release. Bad Jews: a controversial title much? As claimed by the show’s creator, Joshua Harmon, it’s more of a friendly sarcastic remark amongst modern Jews. It’s usually used whenever someone eats (it’s mostly food-related) something that’s not kosher or not appropriate on that particular day (like eating pizza on Passover).
It is, however, not a commonly-known fact among the non-Jews, so I do believe the title is still there to shock and provide some free marketing. During last run of the play, in 2015, posters of the play were banned from the tube advertising space but people still were very much aware of the show somehow. Pretty smart!
Get ready for some serious family drama
The plot is simple – maybe even too simple? A family of cousins come together in New York to grieve their grandfather’s death. Daphne is a “proper” Jew who treasures the Jewish culture and religion, has an Israeli boyfriend and plans to travel to Israel soon (also, she has the neverending need to tell everyone about all these). Liam is the “non-practising Jew” who comes late, bringing his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody along. The group is completed by a quiet, young Jonah, who just seems to be still figuring out his life. Most of the conversations revolve around the ownership of their Grandfather’s traditional necklace. Starting at a simple ownership quarrel, the conversations get deeper and deeper, fueled by the lack of space and privacy…
Welcome to the tiny NY apartment
The story is a slow burn with a comprehensive exposition of characters in the first part, followed by a set of emotion-filled monologues. The end hides one (small) surprise, but frankly, I was hoping for more.
The staging reminded me a lot of “2.22 Ghost Story” – a modern apartment with a small “outside” piece, in this case, a corridor. The space is stressfully tiny – with one pull-out bed and one mattress in the small studio, I felt like grasping for air myself. It does, apparently have 1 huge benefit to it – you can see the river Hudson from the bathroom window (which we, the audience, just have to believe).
A Jewish, but also a universal story
The show is – by its nature and as the title suggests – strongly focused on Jewish culture and religion. The programme I got before the show includes a whole page that translates the American/Jewish words l, but don’t worry – you can easily understand the play even without reading it first. I spent my pre-show time studying the programme – I had no idea Polish and Yiddish have so much in common! This makes sense, taking into account that Poland before WWII used to be a diverse community, with many Jewish families living there for generations.
The issues that the play revolves around are both Israel-specific and universal: keeping the memory of loved ones who passed away, continuing the traditions and passing them on. Finally, the importance of identity, but also the freedom to make own choices. Sounds serious and high level? No worries. Most of the issues touched on in the script are a part of a family roast or a sarcastic puns exchange, so the form of the play makes it easy to “digest” the difficult issues.
Sit down and just enjoy the… roast
“Bad Jews” have a secret weapon that will soften the heart of even the most critical theatregoer: the script.
The arguments and moments when emotions ooze out are done brilliantly. This show delivers the best argument/family fights scenes I’ve seen in theatre this year. When it’s supposed to be funny, it’s ridiculously funny, when it’s sarcastic, the audience is feeling it, and when there is supposed to be a spot-on painful remark, you can feel the little pinch in your heart. I have also realised how varied reactions to the play the audience shows. Some people treated it as a pure comedy, but to some, it was more of a family drama, and these people haven’t even smiled for once. It’s fascinating how this play causes the audience to feel completely different emotions while watching the same show!
The leads in “Bad Jews”
Unfortunately, in between the arguments, the play slows down. As the main premise of the show is quite simple, and two leads (Ashley Margolis, and Rosie Yadid) bring most of the energy on stage, when one of them is off the stage, the play just starts dragging. I felt like it was a bit imbalanced this way. This was fixed at the very end, by including one strong moment that included a different character in the last 2 minutes of the play, which even though very quiet, packed a punch.
Ashley Margolis as Liam is a relatable classic millennial, who is keen to fight for his independence and own plans and ideas. His emotional dilemmas lead to over-the-top anger bursts and roasts, but frankly, Margolis, with his otherwise calm presence, seems perfect for the role. Rosie Yadid shines as Daphne, as she creates a character that surely is both loved and hated by the audience. Thanks to her little quirks like constant hair brushing, she makes the role very physical – as she takes over the whole stage at certain moments. Bravo!
I was a little disappointed with Charlie Beaven as Jonah – I get it that this is an extremely quiet and laid-back character, but he almost disappeared during most of the play, as he was just sitting on the bed, not saying anything. He seems to have so much potential, I’d love to see him in another play with a larger role to play!
“Bad Jews” will not leave you lukewarm. It will annoy you, move you emotionally, and make you laugh like crazy. If you’re Jewish or not, the story is relatable as hell – but it will also make you happy that you don’t have a family like this one.
Bad Jews plays at the Arts Theatre until 25 September
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