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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Bad Jews
St James Theatre January-February 2015; Arts Theatre March-May 2015; Haymarket Theatre February-March 2016

There is some strong writing, both dramatic and comic, in Joshua Harmon's play, but it is not a complete success. 

Harmon is trying to mash together a Neil Simon comedy and an Arthur Miller drama, and the two keep getting in each other's way, weakening the power of each and leaving the audience confused about how they're meant to respond to what's going on. 

We're in the company of four university-age characters, two brothers, their female cousin and one brother's girlfriend. The related three, all New York City Jews, are gathered for their beloved grandfather's funeral, and the central point of contention among them is inheritance of a particular keepsake, an item of little intrinsic value but great emotional power.

It soon becomes apparent that what they're really fighting for is their ownership of their Jewishness. The cousin, very religious and traditional (as is symbolised by her assertively frizzy hair and plan to emigrate to Israel), wants the connection to a family and cultural past. 

The older brother, more secular and assimilated (as is symbolised by the fact that his last girlfriend was Japanese and the current one as blonde and white-bread a shiksa as Central Casting could provide), puts a more personal and no less meaningful value on the item.

(The other brother keeps his emotions private, but signals throughout and makes clear at the end that he has as much invested in the specific and broader debate as the others; and the girlfriend is just a comic prop.) 

The debate over the keepsake and over what twenty-first century Jewishness means is frequently very powerful, not least when both brother and cousin are driven to vicious attacks on each other that evoke memories of early Edward Albee. 

But every dramatic moment in Harmon's play is immediately undercut by a cheap gag that makes us wonder whether the playwright is as involved with the issues and the characters as he has led us to be (and therefore makes us feel a bit foolish for having been so caught up). 

And every extended comic sequence is abruptly brought crashing down to earth by the reminder that these characters, as ridiculous as they sometimes are, feel real emotions and really care about what they're arguing about. 

To enjoy the play you almost have to tune out either all the jokes or all the serious stuff and just focus on the rest, which means you're likely to have an entirely different experience from the person next to you. 

For me, the serious play works best and is most damaged by the clash, B-level imitation Arthur Miller preferable to B-level imitation Neil Simon, but I could understand someone experiencing this as a pleasant sitcom spoiled by occasional moments of heavy seriousness. 

Director Michael Longhurst draws strong performances out of his cast without being able to paper over the gaps in their characterisations or the play's tone.

Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen as the major combatants both seem much more comfortable as serious characters than as comic, Joe Coen provides a solid presence as the quiet brother, and Gina Bramhill does the little that the play asks of her as the girlfriend.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Bad Jews - St James and Arts Theatres 2015

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