Two Jews Walk Into a War
Arguably two of Boston's finest actors, IRNE and Elliot Norton Award-winners Jeremiah Kissel and Will LeBow, co-star in the two-hander, smartly directed by Melia Bensussen. All of the action takes place in the sanctuary of the pillaged synagogue, stripped of its important religious artifacts by the Taliban, in a continuous series of vignettes separated by interludes of Klezmer music or Islamic calls to prayer. The writing is snappy and maintains a throughline as Ishaq (LeBow) and Zeblyan (Kissel) strive to overcome their mutual hatred of each other for the greater cause at hand. However, it is the crackerjack comic timing, gestures and facial expressions of these two troupers that elevate the production to a high ratio of laughs per minute.
When the play opens, Ishaq (LeBow) and Zeblyan (Kissel) stand rigidly at a distance from one another, scowling and virtually shooting daggers across the divide as they lament their state of affairs. Their good friend Jacob has just died, diminishing the size of their congregation by one third and leaving them without a buffer. Furthermore, his last will and testament charges them with responsibility for the future of Afghan Jewry. They don't see eye to eye on exactly how to effect that mission, as Ishaq wants to repopulate (by converting one woman who will then bear his child) and Zeblyan plans to build a magnificent new temple to attract Jews from other nations, asserting "If you build it, they will come."
Of course, nobody will come if they don't have a rabbi, and they can't get a rabbi without having a Torah, so they take on the lengthy, painstaking task of writing their own Torah. Ishaq memorized their old scroll before the Taliban destroyed it and assigns Zeblyan to be his scribe as he recites it word for word, including all punctuation marks. This endeavor is the heart of the play as the men discuss, debate, and read between the lines of the holy book. It becomes an opportunity for them to closely examine the tenets of their religion, learn the true nature of the other man and find meaning in their existence in this unwelcoming land. It's also an opportunity for Rozin to offer some interesting and comical interpretations of the words of the Lord, and the Tea Party won't like all of them.
Adding to the comic effect, designer David Remedios synchronizes the rim shot-like sound of gunfire or an exploding bomb with the delivery of some of the one-liners. Just when I thought it was becoming a predictable sound effect, it stopped, but it fittingly infuses the play with a little hint of vaudeville. When their characters are engaging in one-upmanship, Kissel and LeBow channel old-time variety show comedy duos with their split-second timing and escalating frustration levels. They also make the most of a couple of sight gags having to do with the homemade Torah scroll, the parchment for which was "procured" from a butcher shop.
In addition to their comedy chops, Kissel and LeBow are fine dramatic actors and each has the occasion to showcase those skills in Two Jews Walk Into a War. While Rozin's script reels off the laugh lines and Bensussen sees to it that they are milked, there is a serious theme at the foundation of the story. Ishaq solemnly believes that he must do whatever he must do to maintain the synagogue and perpetuate Afghan Jewry, accepting his place as merely a cog in the lineage of his people. Zeblyan lives more fully in the real world and, as a result, knows firsthand the hatred and abuse aimed at them, as experienced by their ancestors for generations. They realize the craziness of remaining in Kabul, but do not wish to be driven from their home. When they undertake their Herculean task, Kissel and LeBow authentically convey the gravity of their situation.
Richard Chambers' unit set effectively suggests the partial destruction of their place to worship. Dan Kotlowitz provides dusky lighting, punctuated by the occasional explosive flash outside the dirty windows, and Judy Gailen costumes the actors in appropriate tunics, head coverings, and colorful scarves. The design elements combine to illustrate the extraordinary circumstances that Ishaq and Zeblyan find themselves in, but Rozin's words and the actors' actions prove that where there's a will, there's a way.
Two Jews Walk Into a War Performances through April 10 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre; Box Office 978-654-4678 or visit www.merrimackrep.org.
Written by Seth Rozin, Directed by Melia Bensussen, Scenery Designed by Richard Chambers, Costumes Designed by Judy Gailen, Lighting Designed by Dan Kotlowitz, Sound Design by David Remedios; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe. Featuring: Will LeBow (Ishaq), Jeremiah Kissel (Zeblyan).