BRAVE, BARNSTORMING AND CERTAINLY NOT BAD
With Holocaust Memorial day imminent, the Paris murders fresh in mind and anti-Semitism rising across Europe, can you really put on a chokingly, shockingly hilarious comedy about a family at loggerheads over Judaism? Set on the evening after a Holocaust survivor’s funeral? Yes. Joshua Harmon’s wise, fearless 100-minute piece is built around lifestyle conflicts most modern Western Jews will ruefully acknowledge. But by its very intimacy it touches universal tensions: family, class, money, sexual envy, feminism, racism, self-righteousness, and pure bad temper. The kind which only simmers between warring relatives who will never in a million years, admit how similar they actually are.
It is set, and pacily directed by Michael Longhurst for the Theatre Royal Bath,, in a tiny New York apartment . Because of the funeral three cousins – college students – have to camp in one room after the funeral of the beloved grandfather. Daphna (Jenna Augen) is passionately observant, more than her parents indeed: they christened her Diana. She plans to move to Israel, join the army and study as a rabbi. Augen is perfect: a vulture of righteousness, she swoops around under a brilliantly unmanageable thatch of curly black hair which in itself enrages her older cousin Liam (christened Shlomo and keen to forget it).
Liam has a shiksa girlfriend, sweet blonde Melody (Gina Bramhill) and missed the funeral because “his iPhone fell off the ski-lift” during their Spring Break in Aspen. This provides another excuse for Daphna to berate him, though when he is out of the room she deploys equal efficiency in cross-examining the hapless girlfriend. Her gift for rapid offence means that within mere minutes she happily concludes that coming from a white family – Irish-Polish-German-Scottish American – Melody from Delaware is complicit in the genocide of Native Americans. Worse, she has a tattoo, enabling Daphna to say ominously that her grandfather had one too “but that was different”. Audience gasps. Poor Melody, a pitch-perfect innocent, is a failed opera student who, deliciously, works in charity admin “introducing underprivileged children to the City’s architectural past’ . She is conned into the worst rendering of “Summertime” ever heard on a stage. Bramhill , whose voice betrays that in real life she sings beautifully, wrecks it to perfection.
Secular, atheist Liam detests Daphna and Ilan Goodman delivers his rage with the ferocity of a velociraptor, his energy a mirror-image of her own, did they but know it. But in a curious, clever interlude the three cousins suddenly remember a family anecdote and fall into helpless shared hysterics, leaving the puzzled Melody looking on. The respite is brief. The issue is who inherits one small, significant object: a token whose story is from the Auschwitz years. Daphna feels entitled, as the only “real” Jew; Liam has it. His younger brother Jonah claims not to mind. That is a quietly important part: Joe Coen has to spend most of the play saying “Whatever” and “I don’t -“ or lurking miserably on the sofabed; but his body language expresses eloquent, important discomfort. He is the vital fourth wheel as this rattling, raging vehicle heads downhill to disaster.
There is ferocious, gasp-inducing language, up to and including lines like “Don’t you Holocaust me!” “Shiksa cunt!” and “barbed-wire-hopping, Uzi-toting superJew”. Yet it is not a cruel or cynical play. We are aware that the hellcat Daphna is privately unhappy, clinging to her racial and religious heritage like a liferaft; that Liam may want to marry out and embrace atheism but did truly, painfully love and pity the grandfather. We bite our lips wondering whether Melody’s sweet nature will survive in this family. And Jonah ? Ah, his final moment is beautiful, and both hurts and redeems.