Monday, March 28, 2011

Did you hear the one about the last two Jews in Kabul?

Jeremiah Kissel waits for inspiration in Two Jews Walk into a War . . .
Now I bet you thought stand-up comedy about the strife in Afghanistan was impossible.

Well, you're wrong!

Playwright Seth Rozin actually pulls it off in Two Jews Walk into a War. . ., his amusing two-hander up at the Merrimack Rep through this weekend.  Rozin charts the declining fortunes of the last two Jews in Kabul (it's roughly based on a true story, apparently) in this valiant vaudeville, which features an abundance of jokes spiked not with drum rolls but actual gunshots.  I know, I know - I was skeptical, too.  But the show is, indeed, funny and poignant (if in a slightly formulaic way).  And who better to sell it than local stars Jeremiah Kissel and Will LeBow, two of Boston's best actors, who play off against each other with ace precision under the thoughtful direction of Melia Bensussen, who has helmed a string of successes (The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, Circle Mirror Transformation) that I'd say have won her the title of best female director in Boston.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot (because there isn't too much to give away, anyhow).  Suffice to say that Kissel and LeBow are the aging Zeblyan and Ishaq, the last two Jews in the hostile environs of Kabul.  Their temple was long ago ransacked by the Taliban (its forlorn ruin, evoked in detail by Richard Chambers, fills the Merrimack stage) and its Torah has been stolen; when the play opens, they're still reeling from the recent death of the third Jew in Kabul.  But Zeblyan and Ishaq refuse to say die themselves!  Trouble is, these last two pillars of the community can't stand each other; the street-savvy Zeblyan and the bookish Ishaq are constantly at each other's throats.  Still, they resolve to work together to rebuild their community - the foundation of which, of course, must be a new Torah.

The rest of the play revolves around their attempt to pen their own Pentateuch (from Ishaq's sometimes-addled memory) - with the punchline being that every time they make a mistake, they must start over again from scratch (because there can't be any mistakes in the Torah).  Now before you write in - the play is open about the fact that Zeblya and Ishaq are cutting some serious theological corners here (a true Torah can only be produced under very carefully proscribed conditions).  In fact, that's the source of much of the script's comedy.  (So if the set-up offends you, you've been warned.)  But the determination of these two to make do with what they've got (even if all they've got is butcher paper, for instance) in pursuit of their devotion is Rozin's main theme, and it is, indeed, a touchingly funny one - and one with a poignant historical resonance (for the Jews, of course, have faced down foes far more powerful - and even more evil - than the Taliban).

As I said, the comedy is often formulaic; it's a bit raunchy, but basically sentimental (which is to say it conforms precisely to the new Hollywood "bromance" template).  For instance, Zeblya and Ishaq puzzle over the fact that Jewish men aren't allowed to masturbate - but women, apparently, are; likewise gay men are an "abomination," yet lesbians - well, HaShem seems to be down with a little girl-on-girl action.  The difference between "clean" and "unclean" animals is likewise an enigma - and why didn't Noah save the elephants?

All this makes for several rounds of great punchlines, but Rozin tiptoes around the deeper implications of the Torah's many curious commandments.  It's rather obvious, for instance, that the Pentateuch never bothers proscribing lesbianism because it considers women second-class citizens whose sex lives only rate moral consideration in relation to men.  Needless to say, the sweet Zeblya and Ishaq never ponder things that far - that way Reform Judaism lies!  And Rozin's only really interested in a valentine to the core of his faith, not a critique of it.

But when you've got pros like Kissel (at top) and LeBow (at left) at the wheels of a vehicle like this one, it's hard not to enjoy the ride even when it's calculated and gentle, and even though you know every turn before it comes.  With these two, the jokes all land just where they should, and the "unexpected" ending does still draw a tear.  I left Two Jews Walk into a War . . . bemused if not bewitched, and somehow I think you will, too.

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