It is set in a studio apartment, shortly after the funeral of a holocaust survivor – the grandfather of three of the protagonists.
Wedding and funerals are situations where people who normally choose to avoid one another are forced into uncomfortable proximity. Place in the one room a damaged woman (Daphna) a Vassar graduate with an excoriating wit, a dominating personality, and a fervent belief in her own and her cause's righteousness. Add another (Jonah) who just wants it all to be over, and to put as much damage control in place as possible. Blend a third (Liam) an Ivy League postgraduate who is looking to escape his ethnic straight-jacket by marrying out of his culture, and academically exploring aspects of Japan . Completing the melange is the said Gentile fiancée, a music graduate in middle management who initially seems attractive, gentle and a peace-maker, if not, perhaps, as high achieving as Liam and Daphna.
Daphna, once her studies are over, intends to join the Israeli army. Liam is in his own words a "bad Jew" who has missed his grandfather's funeral by not receiving phone messages while on a ski trip with his fiancée, Melody.
Given the dynamics almost anything would ignite dissention. In this instance it is a "chai" – a gold medallion engraved with the Hebrew characters for "life" which their grandfather preserved in the concentration camp and presented to his future wife as an engagement present. Liam wants it (and claims he has been given it by his grandfather) to continue the tradition by giving it to Melody as an engagement gift. Daphna wants it because she sees it as a religious ikon, and feels that only she, with her strong beliefs, should have it. So the symbolism is established – both of them are arguing about possessing "life".
Let battle commence. As the searing torrents of words flow not much is left unchallenged or unrevealed. Yes, it is funny at times, but most of the laughter is triggered by shock at the viciousness of the onslaughts, however well expressed.
At one stage, when Melody has been trying to peace-make Daphna asks her to sing. Is this, one wonders, yet another example of her unerring talent in finding the weak spot in others. Suffice it to say that Daphna is tone deaf, and that her rendition of "Swing Low" gains enthusiastic applause from the audience for its absolute awfulness.
Each of the characters is damaged. Through their battle we get some sense of what it might be like to be Jewish in the twenty first century. Maybe the sheer unremitting awfulness of Daphna makes it hard for us to hear where she is coming from. Maybe Jonah is so neutral as to be a cipher, and Liam only comes to life when he is projecting his hopes of a new life on to the ironically named Melody, who towards the end of the play makes it apparent that she too may not be as gentle a Gentile as she has seemed.
I have to say that this reviewer is at a loss to explain how the play is seen by so many as hysterically funny. Hysterical certainly. As rivetingly attention getting as a road accident. But it has had huge success in London and New York, and is very likely to be sold out in Brisbane.
"Bad Jews" is superbly written, brilliantly acted and searingly unforgettable.