BAD JEWS. Written by Joshua Harmon, directed by Greg Karvellas, with Lara Lipschitz, Glen Biderman-Pam, Oliver Booth and Donna Cormack-Thomson

Karen Rutter

There’s an unseemly amount of schadenfreude involved when watching – nay, relishing – the detonation of a dysfunctional family at a time of year when familial stresses often come to the fore. In fact, Bad Jews makes clashes over the Christmas turkey pale into insignificance. You think you’ve got catering problems? Well, how about the Holocaust as a concern.

There is certainly a guilty pleasure at getting so much enjoyment from this fast-paced, dark comedy – ultimately, you’re at a private fight and you have a front seat. You can literally munch popcorn during the rounds. But what saves the play from simply being a spectator sport is its essential humanity. The assertion of identity, the significance of memory, the integration or rejection of culture are issues most people can relate to. And author Joshua Harmon manages to skilfully weave these oh-so-key subjects into an oh-my-god script that punches way above its synopsis.

Oli Booth as Jonah in Bad Jews

Who Gets the Heirloom?

Set in a New York apartment, Bad Jews follows the fallout after a beloved Jewish patriarch and Holocaust survivor passes on, and his three grandchildren (plus potential fiancée) gather after the funeral. Top of the agenda is ownership of a family heirloom. Super-Jew Daphna (Lara Lipschitz) feels she deserves it because she is the most devout and will honour its provenance. Her worldly cousin Liam (Glen Biderman-Pam) wants it to woo his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Donna Cormack-Thomson) – who is a tad concerned about where it has been stored. And Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Oli Booth) just wants to avoid any confrontation.

The heirloom becomes a catalyst for the release of pent-up emotions between the three family members and the hapless Melody. Well, primarily between the volatile Daphna and the increasingly wound-up Liam, as they use ethnicity, religion, culture, and even sexual attractiveness to jab, poke and ultimately wound each other. It is in these monstrous head-on-head bouts, unforgiving and also painfully revealing, that Harmon’s script releases both its comedic black heart and its universalism. For while this may be a play about a New York Jewish family, it is also about all of us, as arrogant, scared, earnest, flawed, loving, vulnerable people.

Tightly-knit ensemble piece

It is in these vast swathes of cut-and-thrust dialogue that director Greg Karvellis carves a straight and true line, driving up the speed and drawing the maximum from his exceptional cast. His sense of timing and dynamics is remarkable. So too are the actors in this tightly-knit ensemble piece. Lipschitz’s fierce and feisty Daphna never flags her pace, Biderman-Pam plays the strutting Liam and his super-sized ego with oozes of cocky bluster, Cormack-Thomson’s eager-to-please Melody bemusedly absorbs her punches while Booth’s understated Jonah is a higher grade study in subtle presence.

Glen Biderman-Pam and Donna Cormack-Thomson in Bad Jews

The combination of talented cast, dynamic director and smart script make Bad Jews a pretty good choice for the festive season, even though the title may not sound all that Christmas-like. Joke! But when the holiday tensions start building up, you may want to be reminded that other people have troubles too. And sometimes you can even laugh about it.

Where and when: The Fugard Theatre, City, until 14 January 2017