BWW Review: BAD JEWS a Brutal and Vicious Familial Battle

BAD JEWS is a 2012 play by Joshua Harmon that is billed as a dark comedy. Harmon says his inspiration for the play came "after attending a service in which grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were invited to speak." When the beloved patriarch of a New York Jewish family dies, he leaves behind a treasured family heirloom that is a culturally significant piece of jewelry. The item in question was a piece of jewelry, traditionally worn by men, that he succeeded in hiding from the Nazis during the Holocaust. His grandchildren gather to attend to family business and end up fighting over not only the family heirloom, but over faith, cultural assimilation, and each other's life choices while reliving, sharing and remembering.

The family members at the center of contention are the aggressively devout Daphna (Jem Goulding), a young woman who wields her Jewishness like a weapon, and her equally self-centered and abrasive cousin Liam (David Barrera) a well heeled young man who has spent much of his life distancing himself from both his family and his culture. Liam's brother, Jonah (Brooks Laney) simply wants to avoid confrontation, and Liam's shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Keaton Patterson), just wants everyone to get along and respect one another. When it is revealed that Liam is already in possession of the cherished heirloom, a bitter and brutal battle of words ensues over what being Jewish means to each of them, specifically in regards to their family history.

Harmon's script is hardly what I would call a comedy, dark or otherwise. If this is a comedy, then Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a Marx Brothers romp. A smattering of laughs does not a comedy make. To call this extremely vicious and mean spirited script a comedy is as incorrect as calling it a musical because the character of Melody sings a song. The production, as directed by Stacey Glazer, has far more in common with the previously mentioned Edward Albee drama, or The Boys in the Band, in it's brutality. The pacing was languorous and cues had gaps in them that were more in keeping with the aforementioned vicious dramas. The play does work as a drama (as most black comedies can) but when you are expecting a comedy as billed, the result is a shocking switch. The evening drips with tension as the audience prepares itself for the next brutal attack from Daphna... and the numerous awkward silences give plenty of time to watch the gears grinding in Daphna's head as she circles for her next attack.

The performances here are all good for a drama. Jem Goulding, as Daphna, gives a brave reading on the character. I say brave because this is a character without a single redeeming characteristic. Golding embraces the viciously aggressive nature of Daphna with aplomb and proudly owns her utterly repugnant nature. David Barrera gives a richly nuanced performance as Liam, full of tics and gestures that reveal the discomfort underneath the bombastic front he must present to survive another battle of wills with Daphna. Keaton Patterson is both sweet and uncomfortable as Melody, fully believable as the peace maker, and the surprise reveal of Melody's true nature comes as the shock that it should be. Brooks Laney is charming as Jonah, the family member who just wants to avoid being put into the middle of the unending conflict between Liam and Daphna. While the most underwritten of all the characters, he makes the most out of the little Harmon has given him.

Toby Minor's flawless fight choreography is on display at the crucial crux of the proceedings and is as realistic and organic as his work always is. Veronica Prior's costuming is so natural that you are never aware that these are actors who aren't wearing their street clothes. Stacey Glazer has created a nicely authentic looking cramped New York apartment set.

BAD JEWS, while certainly not the dark comedy I was expecting, is still an interesting and blisteringly witty drama about Jewish culture and family battles. It contains all of the tension, greed and verbal battles that are so unfortunately common when a family gathers for a funeral. While it does have an important message, don't expect it to make you laugh (and then feel bad that you just laughed) like a fine black comedy does. This production is far more likely to trigger the kind of reaction you have to being trapped in a room with your least favorite abrasively combative family member.

BAD JEWS by Joshua Harmon
Running Time: One Hour and Forty Five minutes with no intermission

BAD JEWS, produced by The City Theatre Company (3823 Airport Boulevard, Austin, TX, 78722).

Performances: Thursdays-Sundays, March 16 - April 08, 2018 at 8:00 PM with performances on Sundays at 3:00 pm. General Seating $15. Center Row Reserved $20-25. Thursday all seats $10. Tickets at the door $20. Group and student discounts are available. Reservations 512-524-2870 or info@citytheatreaustin.org.



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From This Author Frank Benge