Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon’s acerbic tale of acid-tongued family members vying for the possession of a grandfather’s heirloom, arrives at the St James Theatre with more than a hint of expectation on its vitriolic shoulders.
When it played at Bath’s Ustinov Studio in 2014, it was showered with praise. It was called “scaldingly funny” by the Daily Telegraph, “blisteringly funny” by the Independent and, presumably, many other types of funny that could be caused by boiling water by other critics.
Cast member Jenna Augen won the UK Theatre Award for Best Supporting Performance for her portrayal of the bossy, fanatically religious sister Daphna, opposite Ilan Goodman as wealthy cousin Liam, Gina Bramhill as his girlfriend Melody and Joe Coen as Jonah, the brother who’d rather not get involved.
Before fighting broke out again, on stage at least, we caught up with the cast to discover more about the show, their own awkward moments and argumentative prowess, discovering more than we previously knew about Richard Griffiths, a lot of corpsing and a pretty awful familial faux pas.
How would you describe your character?
Goodman: The golden boy of the family, Liam’s super-smart, confident and intellectually aggressive. Geek-chic, ambitious and occasionally romantic; a liberal academic with an alpha-male edge. Usually a composed, in-control kind of guy, his cousin Daphna has the rare ability to provoke him to a feral rage.
Augen: Sugar and spice and everything nice! Not really. Really, she is cruel and impossibly clever and mean and manipulative and abrasive and bellicose and angry and a shrew… and vulnerable and insecure and full of love and self-loathing and a very real hurt that drives her through the play. Daphna is a dreamboat for any actress that has the privilege of playing her, and I love her very much. I am so grateful to Josh Harmon, not only for writing such a brilliant play, but for creating such a complex, strong, exciting female character.
Coen: He’s a pretty laid back guy with an uncomplicated outlook on life. Joshua Harmon sums him up well in relation to Liam: ‘Younger, more brawn, more heart’.
Bramhill: Melody is incredibly sweet. Perhaps a little too sweet… She is also cute and likes to be cutesy. She is a big fan of pink (the colour, not the pop star) and LOVES the opera. It would definitely be a stretch to call her intellectual. She is a good, proper and polite person and expects people to be good, proper and polite in return.
What is your favourite moment in the show?
Goodman: I especially love doing what you might call Liam’s ‘aria of bile’. It’s a wild, savage, rambling monologue where he vomits up all sorts of personal abuse and violent fantasies about his nemesis, Daphna. He’s been provoked to the point of utterly losing control and the ensuing meltdown is deeply shocking but hilarious.
Another moment I love, without giving too much away, is the surprise song. It’s a brilliant, unexpected plot twist which leads to an unbearably awkward sequence and it’s always entertaining to hear the audience gasp and giggle in response.
Augen: One of my very favourites has little to do with Daphna and that is all I’ll say. Otherwise, it’d be a spoiler.
Coen: I have far too many, and to be honest I’m not a fan of spoilers so I’m just going to have to keep ‘schtum’ on that.
Bramhill: When Melody is forced to sing.
What has been your most memorable moment of being involved in the show so far?
Goodman: When an especially raucous audience and some eccentric laughers caused us to corpse onstage, leading to an intense period of hilarity and finally a round of applause! Only in live theatre!
Augen: Winning the UK Theatre Award was the icing atop a multilayered chocolate cake. I would have to say finding out I got the role in the first place was quite an experience: I broke down, my mother broke down. We would have done anyway, because it is always a relief and a joy to get a job, especially one as spectacular as this, but I had been in the US, missing the UK, for two years. It has meant so much to me, personally as well as professionally, to be able to do this show. To be able to see my friends, to walk these beautiful, oh-so-familiar streets, and to reconnect with my life and career here, was something really unexpected and special.
Coen: Finding out late on in rehearsals that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor.
Bramhill: When I pointed at an audience member to get them to stop laughing! Honestly their laugh was so ridiculously contagious and I didn’t have a chance of pulling myself together if they continued. Obviously this plan was misguided as it caused even more laughter.
What are you particularly bad at?
Goodman: Crochet. Lying. A Welsh accent.
Augen: Sports. I am miserable at sports. I am also very bad at keeping in touch, but I’ve gotten better lately, because I’ve had to.
Coen: Getting to places on time, probably a bit like Jonah.
Bramhill: Corpsing. Or good at it if you look at it another way!
Bad Jews follows an awkward family meeting. What is your most memorably awkward moment?
Goodman: I was doing a charity event at the Almeida – a comic nativity play – with all the actors sat on stage in a semicircle. I was next to the late Richard Griffiths who was playing a fruity-voiced God. Unfortunately, he kept falling asleep and gently snoring in between his scenes. I would try to subtly nudge him awake before he was on. At one point I nudged a little too hard, he awoke with a start and looked at me like I was a pesky child.
Augen: Too many to count. And they are all rather embarrassing, so I will have to leave this question.
Bramhill: Discovering that my family had got my birthday wrong at the age of 14. It’s a long story but we always thought it was the 31 July, as did my school, dentist and everyone I knew. But at fourteen I checked my birth certificate because my best friend at the time was born on 23 (so we would have been a week and a day apart) and she was certain that she had been born on a Monday; as was I because my mum remembered Coronation Street being on in the background! As it turned out I was born on a Monday, on the 30 July, enraging my teen angst for the next few years!
The argument in Bad Jews is sparked by a coveted family heirloom. What prized item might draw you into an argument?
Goodman: My bike. Hands off!
Augen: I think I would go berserk if someone laid claim to my grandmother’s piano or my grandfather’s trumpet. Not that I play either piano or trumpet, but we are all musicians (except my father, who is an incredibly brilliant molecular biologist) and our instruments, and my grandparents’ music especially, mean a great deal to us. Those are easily the most emotionally valuable items in my family, I think.
Coen: When I was a student I frequently got into arguments with people who stole my cheese out of the fridge.
Bramhill: Think my dad would be pretty pissed off if anything happen to his Elvis record collection.
Bad Jews is about a family confrontation. How do you fare in arguments?
Augen: I’m getting better thanks to Daphna. I hate confrontation. Now there’s something I am bad at. I usually do just about everything I can to avoid it. The result is peaceful, but I also repress that which probably shouldn’t be repressed. Meanwhile, I have always been irresistibly attracted to characters who thrive in and on confrontation: Queen Margaret, Martha, Katharine, Daphna. There is something inspiring and exciting about women who are ballsy enough to stand up for themselves verbally, and to fight (literally) their own corners when no one else will. I hope I never behave as despicably as the aforementioned ladies, but I hope I can achieve some of their self-sufficiency and confidence in being true to myself and what I believe.
Coen: I fare pretty well…
Bramhill: Terribly. Tears. There are always tears.
What can audiences expect from the show?
Goodman: An edgy American comedy with big laughs, big ideas and a big heart. A rapid-fire, darkly hilarious family feud combined with a really humane exploration of identity.
Augen: Joshua Harmon has written gold. This play is all kinds of funny, witty and sarcastic, and has some of the most brilliantly written lines and sharply drawn characters I have come across. But it is also a huge idea play that asks some very important, difficult questions. Hopefully the audience will laugh uproariously until the tears come, but, after the laughter has subsided, it is equally hopeful that they leave the theatre considering the challenge and importance of those questions.
Coen: A few shocks, plenty of laughs, a lot of heart and a well-fought argument that I hope audiences will think about long after the show has finished.
Bramhill: I think anyone who has a family can relate to Bad Jews. They will laugh, perhaps be shocked, cringe a touch and hopefully be moved too.
Bad Jews plays at the St James Theatre from 15 January to 28 February. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.