Bad Jews - Review by Simon Jenner

Joshua Harmon’s 2012 Bad Jews is his breakthrough play – effectively his first, he quips, to last more than three nights. It’s fast becoming a play that barely comes off. produced everywhere. Despite the London Underground’s initial refusal to allow posters advertising it – misreading it as inciting racial hatred – the very title, provocative and edgy, alerts you to the act that it’s a quintessentially Jewish American paly. More than that, it’s a quintessentially coming-of-age play, the bit where you argue and grow up. Bob Ryder’s cracking production confirms NVT’s unrivalled form in American drama.

Simon Glazier’s studio flat L details a blue-toned bedsit of three beds improvised for relatives descending after a beloved grandfather’s funeral. A finely detailed kitchen area with stools, where the missing square’s in fact a bathroom we glimpse as people disappear into it and predictably hear everything. It’s beautifully executed. Strat Mastoris’s lighting neatly glares a night bulb over weariness, lit by tenebrous windows and at the end a closing down into stillness and unexpected shock of tenderness. David Miller’s and Max Videux’ sound mainly consists of brief bursts of music; ideally discreet

It’s Jonah’s flat. Emmie Spencer’s Cousin Daphna neatly trashes his temerity in having parents rich enough to buy it from him, living on the same floor as they do; Daphna’s are poorer schoolteachers, not so rich that Joshua’s mother who’s never worked can now set herself up as consultant of nothing-in-particular. Daphna is clearly the type who wars with the world. Consumed with injustice collecting she’s first snacking on her cousins.

‘Bad Jew’ is a term for those who don’t observe, who don’t transmit their culture intact in an increasingly homogenized robotic world. Daphna in advancing these arguments makes her case powerfully. But in this comedy, as Ibsen said of tragedies, everyone is right.

Spencer’s unrecognizable from the incipiently middle-aged Hester Collyer of The Deep Blue Sea she played at NVT recently. Here, she’s a gloriously brash big-haired young Zionist with an extraordinary Chicago snarl, impeccably but energetically delivered. Unlike Collyer too, she’s never still: like her cousin Jonah she twitches, though to a purpose. Her next assault, her next parry, her inner scream of injustice simmers visibly as if Spencer’s about to blow her very big-hair top. Hers is a barnstorming performance, the finest single one since Isabella McCarthy Somerville’s performance in the title role of Anna Christie, itself one of the finest seen at NVT in recent years, Spencer’s previous performance being another. Like True West, another NVT triumph, the directors grip and quality of production incubates the finest performances possible, and it’s not just Spencer’s.

Chris Knight’s Jonah is clearly geeky, furrowed over his Apple laptop. In fact Jonah’s clearly slightly on the spectrum, which Knight attempts to convey in small twitches and refusal to make eye-contact. He’s quite commanding in height and compensates by greying himself out, though the (emerging) convention is to go for the traditionally weedy, flinching type. It’s an ungrateful part, punching a non-verbal coup.

Into this already charged atmosphere Jonah’s elder brother and his gentile girlfriend burst like a water mains. Daphna with no right whatsoever – it’s not her flat – demands they sleep on the small single bed. Matthew Wyn Davies’ Liam already simmers with resentment, but Daphna’s been needling Jonah on the whereabouts of their grandfather’s precious Chai, the one item of inestimable personal value he’s hidden n his tongue for two years in Auschwitz (we assume) where he was branded.

That motif returns at the end but for now it’s the large treble clef on girlfriend Melody’s calf that draws attention. Jews don’t do tattoos except the imposed ones, Daphna starts on the hapless sweet-natured and unintellectual Melody – Sarah Drew’s fine portrait of a young good-natured woman wholly unprepared for the verbal needling and onslaught that outrages Liam. And she’d not Daphna, but Diana, he counters – to her assertion that Liam’s real Hebrew name is Schlomo – Solomon. It’s also a play about claiming and disavowing birthrights.

When alone Daphna asks Melody her origins. Melody’s ‘Delaware… forever’ means her ancestors committed genocide on the indigenous population and so on. It’s not so much virtue-signalling but vice-pointing. Your very ethnicity is a criminal existence, Daphna suggests. It’s uneasily very funny, especially when Drew is pushed to revisit her brief opera-singing degree and render a terribly pinched and literally-pointed ‘Summertime’. It’s a consummate Florence Foster Jenkins performance and deserves its round of applause.

Daphna keeps up her onslaught. We laugh at her, certainly, but are with her too as she lands tellingly on the unexamined life, the bland assumptions of cuteness and unblinking reach-me-down robotic American identity. ‘We’re all Americans’ as even Liam and certainly Melody pleads, isn’t quite enough.

But Daphna’s met her match in Liam. Wyn Davies only sheaths his fury at the behest of Melody and Jonah but breaks out when Melody’s not present, since the two countervaling dynamics are the ownership of the chai and the unexpected interventions of Melody. Furious at Daphna’s overweening assumption of rightness Liam’s equally sure the chai should be awarded to the man who’s going to do with it what poppy did: bestow it on his fiancée as he proposes. Daphna and Melody guess at different moments in his monologue, with the most electrifying results. What falls out after that will have to be seen. In particular Melody’s sweet-natured insistence that everything is brought out. And in superb catastrophic fashion it is.

Wyn Davies wholly convinces as the towering yet fury-hunched intellectual – Liam’s off for a PhD, funded by ma and pa – and as waspishly alert to Daphna’s failings as she is of his family. For one Liam punctures her fantasy of marrying an Israeli soldier who had one-night drunken sex with her, and says more tellingly that her furies stem from never having loved, and probably never loving in the future. It’s certainly George and Mildred for cousins. Wyn Davies energizes, hunches and uncoils in a watchful, forever steaming and barely-contained rage. The electricity and animosity he and Spencer generate together is mesmerising. It’s not a time for healing. Yet the final scene is the play’s reward, an extraordinary revelation and answering gesture. You’ll have to see it.

This is a play supremely worth seeing: for its flayed comedy, acerbic wit, farce-dipped dynamics, monster roles, wincing and raw truths. It’s a triumph from all parties in the best NVT American vein. Don’t miss it.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published - fringereview.co.uk