Lloyd Evans

Bad Jews at the Arts Theatre reviewed: strange, raw, obsessive and brilliant

Plus: a static new play, Breakfast of Eels at the Print Room, by a playwright that many are hailing as theatre’s brightest hope - even though he’s 62 and not very good

Bad Jews at the Arts Theatre reviewed: strange, raw, obsessive and brilliant
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Bad Jews

Arts Theatre, until 30 May

A Breakfast of Eels

Print Room, until 11 April

Bad Jews has completed its long trek from a smallish out-of-town venue to a full-scale West End berth. Billed as a ‘hilarious’ family comedy it opens on a low-key note in a New York apartment where three cousins have gathered for grandpa’s funeral. Daphna is a puritanical vegan Jewess, training as a rabbi, who wants to move to Israel, marry a soldier and serve in the IDF. She’s insanely jealous of Jonah and Shlomo, whose parents have bought them a flat before either has found a job. Shlomo (who calls himself Liam) is a ‘bad Jew’ obsessed with Japanese culture who intends to marry out. He shows up at midnight having missed the funeral because he was in Aspen, ski-ing (a conspicuously unJewish activity), with his blonde girlfriend Melody who has lovely curves, German grandparents and virtually no brainpower. Daphna instantly launches an all-out assault, disguised as friendly curiosity, and accuses Melody of carrying the genes of murdering Teutons who slew native Americans in untold numbers. Stunned, Melody simpers back, ‘I don’t want to have an argument.’

This exchange might seem weird and nasty but it feels hilarious because the characters are single-mindedly following the path determined by their natures. Daphna then rounds on Shlomo and their feud evolves into a bitter debate about destiny and identity. She calls him a Semitic opportunist who confesses his ethnicity only when he wants to disparage fellow Jews. Shlomo accuses her of being an embittered sex-starveling whose ‘Israeli boyfriend’ is probably make-believe. The crux of the argument is a ‘chai’ or lucky medallion, which their grandpa hid in his mouth during years in a concentration camp. Daphna and Shlomo both claim ownership but Shlomo has the heirloom in his pocket and when he offers it to Melody, as a marriage garland, Daphna screams at him to get it off her ‘Christian cunt neck.’

The rhetoric seems at times so savage and toxic as to undermine its credibility but writer Joshua Harmon skilfully varies the emotional mood and finishes each hate-filled passage with a moment of tenderness that unites the characters in a brief interlude of goodwill. Brilliant technique. It makes us accept the tear-gas oratory by reminding us that these sparring monsters are, in the end, tethered by indissoluble ties. But the ‘hilarious comedy’ label is misleading. This script hasn’t the knowing New York wit of Woody or Seinfeld. It’s a strange, raw, obsessive creature, strongly reminiscent of Mamet, which features numerous passages of uproarious dialogue but which lacks a single line that might be quoted as a gag.

Everything is rooted in the harsh, bitter, narrow characters. The ending is part sentimental, part tragic, and has as much muted poignancy as the final beat of a Chekhov play. The show’s undoubted star is Jenna Augen (Daphna), whose blazing fury gains force from her physical contradictions. She has a petite figure with a milky complexion, an angelic voice, a blowpipe stare and a snake’s nest of oil-black curls. Ilan Goodman (Shlomo) hits the role like a human cannonball, almost too hard and fast. Gina Bramhill (a nausea-inducing Melody) wiffles and gurgles with Barbie-doll loveliness. Is the lengthy run affecting the cast? At times they seem overly aware of their showstopping moments. And, as the saying goes, an actor who sees the target too well misses it. Don’t fret if you can’t catch this outstanding production. Bad Jews is around for keeps.

Patchy playwright Robert Holman specialises in static scenarios, drippy characters, baffling plots, sluggish storytelling and perfumed speeches that are all atmosphere and no oxygen. Add silly titles to the charge-sheet and you’ve got A Breakfast of Eels, his latest play.

A funeral has occurred. Daddy is dead. Mummy pegged out years ago. Two leftovers, young Penrose and older Francis, remain in a north London mansion. The brothers are deeply affected by Daddy’s death. But are they brothers? Penrose is public-school posh. Francis speaks cloth-cap northern. It emerges, with all the despatch of a germinating redwood tree, that Francis used to be the gardener until he was adopted by Penrose’s family. The chaps embark on a nostalgic trip into the past and their journey is underpinned by thwarted homosexual yearnings. This is another Holman specialism, deep-frozen gayness, that strikes a dud note in our racy, anything-goes world. During act two I tuned out of the word-storm and turned my scanners to the ultimate arbiter of theatrical quality: coughing. A barrage of throat clearances is the infallible hallmark of a dud show. And guess what? Clear tubes all round. Not a wheeze or a gurgle. Everyone was enthralled, bar me. Holman is enjoying a vogue right now and some tipsters are hailing him as theatre’s brightest hope for the future. Steady, mate. Don’t let it go to your head. (He’s 62.)