BWW Review: Return Season of BAD JEWS at The Fugard a Timely Warning of the Dangers of a Post-Truth Society
Family gatherings have garnered a reputation for being difficult affairs. But these days, a kind of conversation taking place in many South African living rooms seems to be a catalyst for even greater family conflict. Whether it is because someone proposes that #AllLivesMatter when #BlackLivesMatter is under discussion, because someone who thinks that queerness does not have a bearing on one's entire identity or because someone decides to tackle the scourge of casual racism head on, the scope for clashes at dinners, birthdays, funerals and holiday celebrations seems to have grown tenfold in the couple of years. Joshua Harmon's BAD JEWS, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 and made its local bow at The Fugard Theatre last year, picks up on that recent trend and focuses it through the lens of Jewish experiences of the new century. But while the drama plays out precisely and unambiguously with a Jewish context, the play deals with themes that are universal.
BAD JEWS places three Jewish cousins in the same tiny New York studio apartment. Daphna is graduating from Vassar and preparing to move to Israel. Devoted to her faith, she scorns her cousin Liam's apparent disregard for their shared cultural heritage and is outraged that he has missed their grandfather's funeral. Liam, who has been travelling from Aspen, where he was on a romantic getaway with his girlfriend, Melody, is just as disdainful of Daphna's dogmatic take on Judaism. Liam's brother, Jonah, is caught in the middle, with both Liam and Daphna trying to coerce him into taking a stance on which of them should inherit their grandfather's Chai necklace. A family heirloom, "Poppy's Chai" also represents their family's particular experience of the Holocaust and carries a personal meaning in the context of their grandfather's marriage.
It is not long before things turn ugly, and Harmon's writing takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster as the piece shifts from comedy to pathos and back again. His script offers far more than a dramatised debate between two extremists. Harmon shows the audience a family that has common ground despite their differences. A laughter-filled anecdote about one of Liam's birthdays, for example, is as striking as the moments in which Daphna and Liam's feuding threatens to tear apart the family or destroy Liam and Melody's relationship , and it is in seeing these sequences juxtaposed that one realises how timely a piece of work BAD JEWS is in contemporary South Africa.
In his direction of the production, Greg Karvellas draws together everything that Harmon has layered into his play. Karvellas has already proved his adeptness in dealing with no-holds-barred comedy in CHAMP and has gone on, with CLYBOURNE PARK, to direct a more intricately structured piece that shares some thematic commonality just as successfully. He builds the tension in BAD JEWS to breaking point, and it pays off beautifully in the final ten minutes the play, which is both hysterically funny and profoundly moving.
A great deal of the play's success rests on the shoulders of the actress playing Daphna, and Lara Lipschitz is equal to the challenge. She finds the playing style of the piece effortlessly and manages to allow the audience to feel some empathy for a character that is essentially constructed to be as unlikable a human as possible, not because of her firm faith in her beliefs but because of her inability to acknowledge the humanity of those who disagree with her.
Both Glen Biderman-Pam, as Liam, and Oli Booth, as Jonah, cut rather unassuming figures at first, with Biderman-Pam building up Liam's feverish frustrations with Daphna to a boiling point. He is frightening by the time he is ranting about and at Daphna, a point emphasised by Donna Cormack-Thomson's Melody's reactions to his words. Cormack-Thomson delivers a fantastic turn as Melody, the outsider in the room - not family and not Jewish.
Booth's conflicted Jonah also comes into his own as the play progresses, with Booth measuring the character's reactions to his brother and cousin carefully until the moment comes when he has to take sides.
Together, the four make for a tightly-knit ensemble, playing beautifully off one another as the production builds towards its climax.
Saul Radomsky's design for the set gently echoes the thematic conflict of the play, the modern interior of the apartment offering a brilliant contrast to the more traditionally styled hallway. His costumes also hit the mark, with each of the characters' looks deftly sketching out who they are. Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis light BAD JEWS in the bright style associated with comedy, with some nifty practical touches sprinkled throughout the production.
This return season of BAD JEWS comes hot on the heels of the announcement of "post-truth" as Oxford's word of the year. With its origins in politics, post-truth ideologies are quickly spilling over into everyday life. It seems that the danger of post-truth interaction lies, as can be seen in BAD JEWS, in its nature as a fixed, emotional and dogmatic point of view, based on truths that are almost exclusively defined by one's belief in them. So, art imitates life once more, giving audiences a moment to pause and reflect on the way we handle our lives today, asking us to consider what we destroy in our quest to be right.
BAD JEWS runs at the Fugard Theatre until 14 January on Tuesday through Saturdays at 20:00, with a matinee on Saturdays at 16:00. Tickets, ranging from R130 to R165 can be booked online at Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000 or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. Bookings can also be made at the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554.