‘Two Jews’: Laughter amidst a struggle to survive
WATERTOWN – What do you do when there’s just of two of you, and you can’t stand the sight of each other?
You look heavenward for answers and guidance. And then, of course, you rewrite the Torah from memory.
New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Two Jews Walk Into a War…” by Seth Rozin is a black comedy based loosely on a New York Times 2002 story about the last two Jewish residents of Kabul, Afghanistan., the remnants of a once-thriving Jewish community that numbered 40,000 at its highest point.
Rozin thought the story would make a good play but soon realized he had been beaten to the punch by not one, but two productions, both with a serious bent towards the material, so Rozin .embarked on a work with a new tangent, eventually describing his play as an “existential comedy. “
So he set out telling the story using a series of vignettes and black-outs, much like a series of burlesque or vaudeville skits, with lively klezmer-themed music between the scenes.
As the play opens, an old man named Yakob has just died, bad news because he served as a buffer between the other two surviving Jews two warring parties: rug merchant Zebylan (Jeremiah Kissel) and accountant Ishaq (Joel Colodner).
The parts and the piece are right in the wheelhouses of veteran actors Kissell and Colodner, frequent visitors to the New Rep and two actors who know their way around this type of humor.
The director, Will LeBow, is himself no stranger to the play. Kissell and LeBow actually performed the roles of Zeblyan and Ishaq in 2011 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, directed by Melia Bensussen.
Having performed in a previous production is a shortcut that allows an actor such as Kissel to refine and polish his performance and concentrate on his interactions with Colodner, who is a perfect foil as the pious Ishaq.
They blame each other other for not long ago having left Kabul, where the dropping of bombs is the incessant background noise.
With the Jewish population down to two – neither of them female – the solution to saving Judaism in Kabul, they agree, is rebuilding their crumbling synagogue and finding a way to attract a rabbi or other Jews to join them in their misery, which, of course, loves company.
Complicating matters is that Zeb is an irritable, short-tempered, irreverent sort, made all the more miserable by the fact that his wife and family have long since departed for Newark, N.J.
Ishaq, a widower, is religious and devout, and having memorized the Torah by heart, hopes to re-create their stolen Torah, albeit on parchment that most recently was wrapped around meat in a butcher shop.
The funniest of the various scenes has them vividly recreating their treatment at the hands of the Taliban, each story a display of one-upsmanship at the brutality and torture they endured for their faith.
They’ll also debate whether there’s wiggle room around what the Torah prescribes and what actually works in real life.
Musicians Grant Smith and Neema Jam provide lively accompaniment with music consultation by Hankus Netsky of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Set designer Jon Savage’s synagogue has seen better times after being continually ransacked by the Taliban, but there are still glimpses of the care and love that was lavished upon it by worshipers in better times, and a sadness and poignancy over what it has become.
And while the humor and humanity are always at the forefront of the 90-minute piece, amidst the humor there is a heartfelt story about faith and family, our yearning to belong to something bigger than ourselves, with traditions and rituals that endure, and our need to make human connection even under the direst of circumstances.
The New Repertory Theatre production of “Two Jews Walk Into a War…” Written by Seth Rozin. Set design by Jon Savage. Costume design by Nancy Leary. Lighting design by Karen Perlow. Sound design by Lee Schuna. At the Mosesian Center for the Arts through May 20. newrep.org.