Jewish identity is one of those things so thick with potholes and heavy humourless traps that you know you will be standing on toes, whatever you say. From Israeli politics to Holocaust history, levels of ritual observance to over protective mothers, it’s also a modern day culture totally fraught with psychoses and whole histories of emotional dysfunctionality, which in so many contexts is basically untouchable. You laugh unwittingly at some of this stuff, and you will have the Anti-Defamation League at your door forthwith. Enter New York Jew, Joshua Harmon. His work Bad Jews (2013) cocks a snook at everything, as it intelligently and ruthlessly splits open the whole range of taboos in Jewish culture, behaviour and context, and what you get is a sophisticated and easy to watch play which boasts beautiful and satisfying structure, and leaves you reeling with splayed values.
It will offend people, of that you can be sure. Be that as it may, under the direction of Greg Karvellas and with production design crafted by Saul Radomsky this play is very close to flawless. But arguably, its magic ingredient is Lara Lipschitz who plays the central role of Daphna.
We’ve seen her as a swing in big musicals, she’s had small roles in television soapies, she started her career with an experimental one-woman show based on a story by Roald Dahl and created her own web series called Chin Up, but in this role Lipschitz truly comes into her own. Armed with a classic “jewfro”, which is almost like a separate character in the cast, and a pair of seriously unplucked eyebrows, Lipschitz’s Daphna is spunky and articulate, tactless and passionate as any enlightened young lass conflicted with all the opposing values of what it takes to be Jewish upon her. She’s gung ho about Israel and plans to be a woman rabbi. She knows the whole complicated shtick of feminist Judaism and Jewish feminism, she understands the role of privilege and is not afraid to call anything by its name. She’s rather terrifying, but she’s very real and it’s a mix of bluster and bravado and passion that makes her utterly magnetic as a character and the fabulous vortex of this work.
And when she comes eyebrow to eyebrow with her two boy cousins, Jonah (Oli Booth) and his older brother Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam), who brings along a non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Ashley Carine de Lange) just after their grandfather’s funeral, the sparks fly with acerbic abandon and well-aimed barbs. It’s a barrage of intelligent and hugely spiteful insults aimed to damage like only Jewish internal politics can, with doubling-back, transparent bravado and hefty dollops of emotional guilt wherever you dare to look.
While it’s hard to look beyond Lipschitz’s enormous stage presence, it’s an instructive exercise. The whole work is immensely well cast. Biderman-Pam as the stressed older cousin speaks repressed Jewish identity with his very posture. He embraces the muscular role with verve and finesse, malice and vulnerability which is hastily shut up with knee-jerk response aggression. In the role of his seemingly detached brother, Booth too is superb. Jonah is a role which touts its own level of bravado, but also its own level of gut-wrenching sincerity with simple gestures that create important emotional turnarounds in the work. And young De Lange embraces her role as the non-Jewish blond girl which spins the whole marrying out yarn with hilarity and delicacy, with mature aplomb. She is exactly right in her presence and interpretation for this role.
Having said all of that, the play teeters around the edge of cringeworthiness, but Lipschitz’s authoritative and frankly beautiful performance never allows it to become pathetically stereotypical. There’s a taut spine throughout this work which enables you – whether you’re Jewish or not – to see both sides of the myriads of issues. The play is funny, but it’s not laugh-a-second funny or foolishly self-deprecating like much hackneyed Jewish theatre is. It’s about heritage and culture, the complicated idea of marriage and ghastly operatic song. It’s about white privilege and the pathos of Holocaust history. And above all, it’s about life – and a trinket bearing the traditional ‘chai’, a combination of Hebrew letters which represents the number 18, and connotes life.
In short, Bad Jews is brilliant, but it’s not forgettable or flimsy entertainment. Don’t miss it.
- Bad Jews is written by Joshua Harmon and directed by Greg Karvellas. It features design by Saul Radomsky (set and costumes), Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis (lighting), Gerhard Morkel (construction) and Ash Zamisa (painting) and is performed by Glen Biderman-Pam, Oli Booth, Ashley Carine de Lange and Lara Lipschitz, at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 14. 011883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za
- Read about Lipschitz’s web series Chin Up here.
- For a broader reflection on how Bad Jews touches our contemporary society, read this.