Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews opened in Sydney last week.
Set in a New York studio apartment, the play throws together three grandchildren bunking with each other after the funeral of their holocaust-surviving grandfather.
One plans to join the Israeli Defence Forces. One can’t stand his cousin’s victimhood complex. All of them are neurotic.
It could only be a comedy.
A classic pressure-cooker situation, the conflict on stage is primarily between two cousins. Their fight over a family heirloom is really a battle of identity.
There’s the loud, sarcastic and passive aggressive Daphna, who identifies strongly with her family’s history of persecution - despite having not experienced any herself. And there’s Liam, a liberal student studying Japanese youth culture with a record of non-Jewish girlfriends and an apathy for his family’s history.
The two don’t hold back in their assaults on each other either. Harmon gives both Liam and Daphna full reign to say exactly what they feel – and then some.
Daphna is denounced as an ‘uber-jew’ with a persecution complex, Liam is an ‘anti-Semite’ who only speaks ‘as a Jew’ when he can criticise Israel. Melody, Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend, is slammed as being “both conceived and live-water-birthed in a K-Mart.”
That was definitely the line of the night.
Worse words are said – the c-bomb is dropped – but I don’t want to give the impression Bad Jews devolves into a yelling match, it doesn’t. The writing is sharp, the timing tight, and the piece very rarely lags.
At its core, this play is about identity, and the identity of Millennials in particular.
At times the traffic of the small New York apartment feels like a battle raging within a conflicted Millennial mind.
Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or atheist, many will recognise the struggle of reconciling family traditions and cultural beliefs with the more liberal ‘people are people’ worldview of our connected age.
My plus one at the opening – a white atheist from a Catholic background, raised in Sydney’s outer suburbs – said he could definitely connect with the characters, despite being half a world and an entire culture away.
Jewish identities are strongly represented in American culture, you only need to look at the sitcoms and movies that cross the Pacific to see it. It’s less present in Australia.
“I cannot think of a single Australian film or television show that features Jewish characters or themes,” director Gary Abrahams confessed to me, “I think in Australia Jewish culture is vastly underrepresented, and when it is, it tends to be focused around Holocaust stories and Israeli/Palestinian conflict stories.”
The themes of the piece clearly resonated with him. “I identify as an atheist and have little time for religious dogma – but I am proudly Jewish and claim my Jewish culture as a keystone in my identity,” he told SBS.
None of the characters are ones you might choose for relatives, but all are somewhat sympathetic and raise intelligible arguments.
Daphna feels a strong connection with her ancestors who carried traditions forward. “They didn’t stop, they didn’t stop practicing,” she says, “they didn’t exactly have it easy either.”
“[Being Jewish] is easier than it ever has been in the history of the world, and you want me to stop now?” She asks.
Abrahams told me he saw a definite difference between younger Jews when compared to their parents and grandparents – Millennials balance traditions with liberalism, but are more forthright in embracing their identity.
“I think older generations still have a sense of feeling they need to keep their Judaism hidden away in the shadows, as something best kept behind closed doors. I think younger generations gain strength from their Judaic culture and are bolder in standing up against anti-Semitism,” he said.
Having once lived within the fairly unique Jewish circles of New York, I did wonder how this very American play would translate to Australia. Maria Angelico, Simon Corfield, Anna Burgess and Matt Whitty do an excellent job of capturing the accents, passions and neuroses of the archetypes they represent.
This is all the more surprising because not only is the cast all-Australian, they’re also not Jewish.
“Not being Jewish myself, it felt very exposing like any role I guess when you’re faking something and then the real deal comes along you very much want a tick of approval,” Maria Angelico, ‘Daphna’, told SBS.
“Each night there are particular moments you never quite know whether they are going to laugh or gasp or both,” Simon Corfield, ‘Liam’, said.
Corfield and Angelico also told me they identified particularly strongly with the drama of introducing a new partner to the family, as Liam experiences each time he brings home a non-Jewish girlfriend.
“That family has much to say – and believes they have some ownership over who one can date or marry within a family – has reared its ugly head in my family, and it can be to do with sexuality, religious preference, or even their socio-economic status,” Corfield said.
Bad Jews is playing in the Seymour Centre, Sydney, until June 4.