Simon Corfield and Maria Angelico star in a new production of Josh Harmon’s Bad Jews. The play is set the night after the funeral of an elderly Holocaust survivor, and centres around an argument over who will inherit the man’s “chai” necklace, a trinket of varying religious, filial, and personal importance to his two oldest grandchildren.
The entirety of the action takes place in an apartment and adjoining hallway. The single-set makeup of the play keeps tension slowly rising throughout, with dramatic breathing space afforded only when characters leave the set to use the bathroom. Despite never being directly shown, the bathroom becomes a key feature of the play: the characters use it in turn, with each absence changing the conversational dynamic and allowing those remaining in the apartment to gossip about the absent party.
The play is an exploration at what it means to be a secular Jew in modern America. The key polarity is between Simon Corfield’s Liam, who is on the cusp of proposing to his gentile girlfriend; and Maria Angelico’s Daphna, whose recent trip to Israel has left her with a reinvigorated sense of Jewish national identity and a long-distance Israeli boyfriend. Liam finds Daphna’s newfound patriotism garish and superficial; Daphna, meanwhile, maintains that Liam has forgotten and neglected his heritage. The form of their exchanges is razor-sharp, with each digging incisively at the other’s foibles and hypocrisies.
Their argument centres around a piece of jewellery belonging to their recently deceased grandfather, Poppy: a necklace smuggled out of the concentration camps, on which is written “chai” the Hebrew word for “life”. When Poppy proposed to a woman after the war, he could not afford to buy her a ring, and so betrothed her with the necklace. Now, Liam wishes to propose to his own girlfriend using the necklace; a continuation of filial tradition. Daphna argues that marrying out of the faith would be an insult to everything Poppy suffered for, and that the necklace’s status as a religious icon would be defiled by its involvement in the engagement.
The dialogue in Bad Jews is witty and fast-paced, with vicious to-and-fros delivered with surgical expertise. The play approaches the big issues – the Holocaust, Israel, Jewish identity – and consistently favours comedy over pathos, playing the tension for laughs and preferring to entertain rather than risk the heaviness of a solemn grapple. Recommended for lovers of precision wordplay and taboo humour.
Bad Jews is playing at the Seymour Centre until the 4th of June.