Words: Simon Button; pictures: David Bloom
Comedy seldom comes as deliciously dark as Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon’s four-hander which is back at the Arts Theatre after a run there in 2015 with Charlie Beaven, Olivia Le Andersen, Ashley Margolis, and Rosie Yadid making their West End debuts with top-notch work that should secure bright futures for all of them.
The title suggests a non-PC romp through Jewish culture, perhaps, or a sort of Jews Behaving Badly sitcom – as indeed does the poster image of these very attractive youngsters behind a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline.
Ashley Margolis as Liam Haber, Olivia Le Andersen as Melody, and Rosie Yadid as Daphna
But Harmon, a native New Yorker, has something less obvious in mind. He doesn’t mine his heritage for easy laughs but instead takes a deep dive into characters who are at each other’s throats as they clash over family heirlooms, religious beliefs, and interfaith marriage.
Le Andersen is the only one smiling on the poster and that’s because she plays an outsider named Melody who soon gets that smile wiped off her face in the company of a trio of spoiled grandchildren brought together after the death of their beloved Poppy, a Holocaust survivor whose Haim necklace both Liam (Margolis) and Daphna (Yadid) feel is rightfully their’s.
Ashley Margolis as Liam Haber and Rosie Yadid as Daphna
Melody is Liam’s fiancée and the fact she’s not Jewish rubs Daphna up the wrong way. The latter is, as Liam disparagingly dubs her, ‘Super Jew’ as she hectors everyone else for not being as informed or devout. He, on the other hand, is freewheeling about his faith while his younger brother Jonah (Beaven) flat-out refuses to take sides.
The barbs in Harmon’s script cut like a knife (“She is a fucking c***” Liam says of Daphna) and – one hilarious moment aside when Melody, supposedly a trained singer, murders a song – the comedy comes from a caustic war of words, with Margolis (a dead ringer for a young Bradley Cooper) and Yadid delivering virtuoso rants.
Olivia Le Andersen as Melody
It’s a contrivance to have them all staying in the same New York studio apartment on pull-out sofas and air mattresses (although it’s a fabulous studio with a view of the Hudson River), as it is having two of the characters on two separate occasions disappear to the en-suite loo so another of the characters can mercilessly slag them off.
But the acting papers over these contrivances and director Jon Pashley keeps it all moving at a fast clip across 95 minutes with no interval.
Rosie Yadid as Daphna
As the author notes, none of the quartet is hateful. They’re just angry and passionate, and they are protective of their grandfather’s legacy, even if they don’t go about it in the nicest of ways.
Harmon’s play is a ferociously funny and fascinating exploration of just how hard it is to cling to cultural identity in an increasingly homogenous world.
Bad Jews is at the Arts Theatre until 25 September. For more information visit artstheatrewestend.co.uk and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.