Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is back! Having run at The Fugard in late 2015, the comedy’s return is no doubt a testament to its popularity. This play is hysterical, as well as poignant and complex. It’s also strikingly realistic in its depiction of religious and cultural identity, as well as family dynamics.
Directed by Greg Karvellas, known for Clybourne Park and The Father, the play centres on a dispute between two cousins over a family heirloom owned by their recently deceased grandfather Poppy. The item in question is a neckpiece carefully kept hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust, and bearing the traditional Jewish symbol known as a chai.
Daphna (Lara Lipschitz, seen before at The Fugard in Cabaret) feels most deserving of the chai as she is fanatically devoted to Judaism and views the heirloom as a reminder of Poppy’s survival. Standing in her way is Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam), who has only just arrived in town, having missed the funeral. He is secular and, to make matters worse, his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody is with him. For Liam, the chai is symbolic of Poppy’s love for his wife. Then there’s Liam’s brother Jonah (Oli Booth), who wants no part in this fight but finds himself caught in the middle. Both Daphna and Liam are seen as a ‘bad Jew’ in the eyes of the other and the play’s complexity rests within the inability to decide which of them is more deserving of the chai.
Liam’s eventual praise of Melody’s goodness (a defence against Daphna’s prejudice towards the girl) conveys the main focus of Bad Jews. The play explores how a fundamentalist outlook can diminish one’s tendencies toward humanism and compassion. There is a moment when Daphna, Liam and Jonah laugh themselves silly over an anecdote involving their grandfather. Here, a familial connection breaks the awkwardness of the overall situation.
The four stars of Bad Jews are all exceptional performers, but it’s Lara Lipschitz and Glen Biderman-Pam who stand out. Loud, assertive, funny and sensitive, they create both chaos and emotion as two people on opposite ends of the same spectrum. Donna Cormack-Thompson once again demonstrates her artistic energy, which she has previously shown in Anthology: After the End and the Cape Town Fringe Festival‘s Monster.
As for Oli Booth, he has a likeable and vibrant presence in spite of not having that many lines to speak. And his last moment is perhaps the most poignant in the entire play: Jonah, who we’ve come to know as passive and apathetic, reveals his own personal tribute to Poppy. We won’t be giving you any spoilers but it’s a courageous gesture that proves a powerful point: that deviation from doctrine doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting one’s heritage.
Photography Daniel Rutland Manners