St James Theatre, London, Thursday 12th February, 2015
Those closest to us have the potential to hurt us the most and, when they’ve a mind to, know exactly which buttons to press to inflict the most damage. Family members in particular are armed in this manner – and this is the engine that drives Joshua Harmon’s play, in which members of a Jewish family gather in a studio flat in the aftermath of their grandfather’s funeral.
There is Jonah (Joe Coen) quiet and withdrawn, seeking not to be involved in the spats and sparring. Visiting is cousin Diana (who prefers to be called Daphna) and the contrast between the two could not be sharper. Jonah couldn’t get a word in if he wanted to. Daphna (a steamroller of a performance from Jenna Augen) loves to talk and to carp and to kvetch. She is particularly vocal in her condemnation of Jonah’s brother Liam, who failed to show up to the funeral. We dislike Daphna almost instantly; she is relentlessly egocentric and vicious, but Augen imbues her with a spark that makes the character fascinating. It’s like watching a predator setting its traps – you daren’t take your eyes off her.
When Liam (Ilan Goodman) turns up with his Aryan girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow, the fur begins to fly. The bone of contention between them is an heirloom to which they each lay claim. To Daphna, it has religious significance; to Liam its history has a sentimental impact that is a means to an end – he plans to use the beloved trinket as a prop in his proposal of marriage to Melody.
What neither Daphna nor Liam can see (but it is as plain as day to us) is that these warring cousins are exactly alike in their arrogance and selfishness, albeit they occupy opposite ends of the spectrum that indicates adherence to tradition.
Harmon’s script has more barbs than a perimeter fence and is a gift for this quartet of actors. Director Michael Longhurst handles the crescendos and rests like a maestro. One of Liam’s rants stops the show, earning Goodman a round of applause. Otherwise, this is a naturalistic piece; the funny lines come from the characters’ wit, rather than the playwright’s – if that makes sense!
Daphna’s cruelty towards Melody is premium-grade bullying, and seems unwarranted until, in the blistering climax, Melody’s true colours are revealed.
The symbolic power of grandfather’s heirloom is trumped by a final reveal from Jonah. A ‘bad Jew’ is one who only observes the rules by acknowledging when he has broken one. Jonah’s tattoo makes him such a ‘bad Jew’ but it also makes one heck of a gesture, which lifts the piece above the level of a debate-cum-slanging match with issues.
A tour de force from all concerned and yes, it is very, very funny.