by Patrick Neylan
Bad Jews is a comedy, as you’d expect from those perennial comedy tropes: death, Zionism and the Holocaust.
The set-up is simple: Holocaust survivor Poppy has died, and the family has gathered for his funeral. Into a New York hotel room are squeezed prickly, zealous Diana – who prefers to go by the Hebrew variant Daphna – and her cousin Jonah. Jess Jenner’s Daphna is a whirlwind of manipulation as she bullies Jonah – played by Robert O’Neill – into sharing her antagonism to Jonah’s older brother Shlomo.
Daphna is furious that Shlomo failed to get back from holiday in time for the funeral – having dropped his iPhone off a ski lift in Aspen – but the roots of this quarrel run much deeper. Shlomo (Gavin Dyer) prefers to go by the name Liam, and seems to have rejected everything about his Jewish heritage that Daphna has embraced. He has infuriated her by introducing the family to a succession of girlfriends who couldn’t be more goy if they tried, and the latest specimen – the bubbly, good-natured but slightly dim Melody (Naomi Cunningham) – walks right into the firing line.
Central to the plot is the fate of Poppy’s chai, a religious talisman he kept safe in the concentration camps by hiding it under his tongue. Daphna, naturally, feels it should be hers, but Liam says Poppy gave it to him.
The show teeters along the line of bad taste and frequently crosses it, leaving the full houses in the bar laughing at some of the most savage humour we’ve seen at BLT for a while. In today’s era of hyper-sensitivity and professional offence-taking, playwright Joshua Harmon, director Julie Binysh and her cast take the Mel Brooks approach by donning jackboots and marching straight through any and all sensitivities, to hilarious effect.
In the vanguard of this bad-taste blitzkrieg is of course Daphna, whom Liam outrageously insults at one point as an “über-Jew” (most of the audience would have understood the reference to übermensch, but if you didn’t, look it up). Jenner’s Daphna intimidates Liam, disparages Melody and goes into all-out attack against Liam with machine-gun bitchiness. Liam, though, is up for the fight and gives as good as he gets.
One can’t help but feel for Melody, stumbling into family arguments that go back not just years but probably back to the Babylonian captivity.
But this show wouldn’t work as a cavalcade of cringing. If Liam were no more than a feckless hedonist, then the laughs would be shallow and hollow. Liam’s point is that life and love matter more than death and remembrance, and Daphna’s worship of heritage is sterile – a point subtly made by the credible suggestion that her Israeli boyfriend is a figment of her imagination.
Daphna’s ostentatious super-Jew eventually pales before Jonah’s quiet, understated respect for Poppy. In the final minutes, he reveals how he has broken one of the stern proscriptions of Leviticus: he’s had a tattoo; a facsimile of Poppy’s concentration camp tattoo. His quiet dignity says so much more than Daphna’s loud posturing.
None of this would come out without four very different by equally splendid performances. One could have asked Jess Jenner’s Daphna to be more likeable, but the force of her arguments and her character’s humourlessness would have made that incongruous. Her whirlwind of fundamentalism needed to contrast with Liam’s joie de vivre, and that’s what makes this play not just Jewish but American: how much of the Old World do you carry into the New?
That’s also why Gavin’s Liam is the perfect foil for Daphna. Gavin is an unusual actor in that his irrepressible humour never detracts from his power in performance, so he is quite Jess’s match in argument without losing the humanity that is at the centre of Liam’s character. Most actors would struggle to keep up with Jess in full, magnificent flow.
Some observers might view Melody and Jonah as lesser characters, blown away by the hurricane of Daphna’s and Liam’s feud. Not so. Melody is the spirit of the New World, whose naivety contrasts so sharply with Daphna’s Old Testament certainty. If the audience ever gets the feeling that she is separate from the argument, then she is dragged right back into the game by Daphna’s accusation that being a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) makes her complicit in quite another genocide. She also gets one of the funniest moments of the show when goaded by Daphna into singing. It’s clear that Naomi can sing, and it takes some skill for a good singer to sing quite that badly.
Melody’s benevolent near-idiocy charms Liam and infuriates Daphna, and it must have been tempting for Naomi to imbue Melody with some steel that the character didn’t need. Her simple, unostentatious love for Liam is powerful enough. Both Naomi and director Julie deserve credit for their restraint.
Speaking of restraint, what do we make of Robert O’Neill’s Jonah? He spends the first half of the play intimidated and browbeaten by Daphna, and is almost silent in the second half as the Liam/Daphna tempest swirls around him, before his revelation of that tattoo makes both Daphna’s and Liam’s obsessions seem so superficial.
This is hugely difficult, especially in a space as intimate as the bar. Rob has nothing to say for long periods – similar to his performance in last year’s bar show DNA, but to a very different purpose (in DNA there was a palpable menace to his silence). Without that dignified silence, his final revelation would have lost much of its power. Again, credit is due to both director and actor.
Bad Jews isn’t about what it means to be Jewish, but what it means to be human.