Theatre Review: Bad Jews – Semitic Semantics, Or The Chai-Lo Country

January 28, 2016



Bad Jews / Directed by Greg Karvellas / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg


One room. Four people. Loads of talking. That’s a bad book launch, not a play, surely? Not in playwright Joshua Harmon’s hands. Harmon goes the full Aaron Sorkin on his topic here, packing intelligent verbosity (garrulity, prolixity, even) into almost every nook and cranny in this production.

The setting is a small New York apartment where one generation of a Jewish family is gathering (along with the shiksa girlfriend of one of the young men) on the night after the funeral of their grandfather. Daphna (Lara Lipschitz) is an uptight fundamentalist with a fearsome intellect that only does part of a job concealing a brittle self-image. Jonah (Oli Booth) is her cousin and the younger of two brothers – much more reserved and apparently unwilling to involve himself in the complexities of his culture when it comes to dealing with the death of a patriarch. Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam) is the older brother, also very smart but the opposite of his cousin in terms of his religious views, preferring to argue that the dilution of Jewish culture means it’s hardly worthy of defending. And Melody (Ashley Carine De Lange) his sweet but relatively dim girlfriend is simply caught in the middle, loyal enough to Liam to stick around but ill-equipped to handle the intensity of the occasion.

The acting is the match of the writing, which is as important as it is impressive, as any weak links would disrupt the exquisite balance that Harmon has created in his story.

Lipschitz, however, must be singled out for particular praise, as she has a torrent of tricky, intricate dialogue to get through as well as having to maintain an attitude of belligerent bitchiness throughout, which must take an enormous amount of emotional energy – especially when Daphna’s diatribes occasionally make sense.

Biderman-Pam is fantastic too, coming across almost as a more robust, antagonistically acerbic Woody Allen who has the capacity for both breathtaking selfishness and unexpected tenderness. Booth and De Lange are foils to the above, central pair with Jonah being a solid, sympathetic presence as the family peacemaker and Melody’s hippie values the outward manifestation of a genuinely caring heart.

The dialogue whizzes through culture, religion, loyalty, love, loss and history, picking at scabs, yanking skeletons out of closets and generally leaving political correctness at the door. It’s invigorating, confrontational stuff that doesn’t offer easy answers (or indeed, any answers) to the questions it raises. In fact, for all the talking that gets done onstage, there is likely to be a reaction in kind once the curtain comes down as audiences position themselves along the spectrum occupied by the characters.