Rebecca Wallersteiner chats to actor Joe Coen about his starring role in the play Bad Jews, which transferred to the West End last month after sell-out runs in Bath and London
It is hard to imagine a more incendiary name for a play than Bad Jews. In recent weeks, Joshua Harmon’s play about Jewish family life has rarely been out of the news, owing to its allegedly “offensive” poster which has been banned on the London Underground. Now Londoners have another chance to see the play at the West End Arts Theatre, where it will run for three months.
The play – set in a cramped Manhattan apartment on the night after a beloved grandfather has died, leaving a treasured family heirloom up for grabs – features four characters; one of whom is Jonah, played by actor Joe Coen.
Already known to Radio 4 fans as the character of the dashing Lord Lufton in the Barchester Chronicles, who lives for hunting, shooting, fishing and ladies, Coen has previously starred in the films City Rats (2009) and, more recently, Son of God (2014), where he played Joseph, the father of Jesus.
“In Bad Jews, I draw on my Jewish roots to play the character of Jonah, who reluctantly becomes stuck in between his aggressive brother Liam and religious cousin Daphna, who viciously fight each other, defending conflicting views on what it means to be Jewish in modern culture,” Coen tells me.
“As a listener and deep thinker, Jonah just wants everyone to get on and he would prefer not to get involved in the fight at all. But if everyone had listened to him in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a play. “Sitting on the fence, Jonah is swayed by the two arguments going on – rather like the audience,” adds Coen. He goes on to tell me that it has been challenging for him to play the role of Jonah as he is more used to playing alpha male, go-getting personalities like that of Liam – the part that he was originally put up for.
Could he relate to the bitter family arguments, I ask him? “Family fights are something I can relate to, although my own family tends to let it out rather than keep it in,” he answers with a laugh.
What did he feel about Transport for London’s recent decision to ban the poster for the show on the grounds that it might cause “serious offence”? “I thought the decision to ban the poster was particularly peculiar as the same poster had been advertising the play for seven weeks, without complaint, during our recent run at St James. There isn’t anything anti-Semitic about the poster; in fact half the cast of Bad Jews, including myself, and even the writer, are Jewish. It is highly likely that whoever complained about it being offensive hasn’t seen the play,” comments Coen.
When Bad Jews played at the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio in 2014, the play was showered with praise. The Evening Standard described it as “ferociously clever” and The Sunday Times praised it as “blisteringly funny…”
Cast member Jenna Augen won the UK Theatre Award for Best Supporting Performance for her portrayal of Daphna. In America, the play proved such a hit when it was initially shown that it ran at three separate venues in its first year. It explores universal issues about faith, identity and tragedy with a dark comedy that will simultaneously shock and surprise the audience.
“The Arts Theatre is not much bigger than our old venue so we should still be able to maintain the same intimacy with our audience,” adds Coen.
Bad Jews runs until 30 May at The Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street. For more details visit www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk