Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews received its première in the UK in Bath last year before transferring to the West End, and is now on a regional tour. An exercise in modern American comedy-drama and wearing its antecedents proudly (Mamet, Albee and perhaps LaBute), it is nowhere near as shocking or controversial – nor funny – as it thinks it is, despite all the grand claims that have been made for it. In this, it resembles a similar cause celebre from a few years ago, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, which similarly skirted round some extremely controversial topics without the real bite and shock value that a play like this needs. Yet there’s always a question of how far you can really go in something designed as comfortable week night entertainment, played in a proscenium arch theatre to hundreds of middle-aged people in search of an evening’s distraction.
Not that Bad Jews is bad. It deals with two cousins, the hard-to-take and devoutly Jewish Daphna and the supercilious, atheistic Liam, who are locked in mortal combat over a family heirloom. Daphna believes it to be hers because of her avowedly semitic heritage; Liam plans on using it to propose to his gentile girlfriend Melody, the epitome of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan sweetness. Watching uncomfortably from the sidelines is Liam’s brother Jonah, whose wish not to take sides conceals a deeper watchfulness, albeit one only revealed at the play’s close. The battle royale between Liam and Daphna takes place in a very small studio apartment, and by the end dignity and artifice will have been brutally stripped away.
In the programme notes, Harmon defends Daphna, saying ‘I am the most protective of (her)…(she) gets the brunt of people’s ire, which leads me to believe that the issue is something else entirely.’ No fault of the talented actress, Ailsa Joy, who does a fine job teasing out vulnerability and insecurity, but Harmon has, knowingly or not, weighted the play so heavily against his shrill, shrieking termagant of a hypocritical bigot that most of the laughs come from Daniel Boyd’s preppie Liam’s understandable exasperation with her tub-thumping, one-note obsession with racial and religious purity. When she is compared to a Nazi towards the end, it gets a laugh – and an intake of breath – but it is a bold move to have a protagonist quite so loathsome and expect the debate to remain an equal one. Antonia Kinlay is charmingly air-headed as Melody (complete with tattoo of treble clef on her leg) and her quasi-operatic rendition of ‘Summertime’ halfway through, in a failed attempt to defuse tension, is a bizarre comic highlight in a play that could have done with more touches of surrealism.
At an hour and three-quarters without interval, it moves speedily, although Michael Longhurst’s production could do with hastening the early scenes between Jonah and Daphna that do little other than foreshadow the more serious arguments coming later. What now remains to be seen is whether Harmon can harness his obvious talent into less schematic and more adventurous territory, or whether Bad Jews proves the high watermark of the rest of his career. Oy vey, indeed.
Bad Jews at the Theatre Royal Brighton until 24th October 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.