What would Judaism look like if there were only two Jews left in the world? And what if those Jews were two men who were stranded in Kabul? That is the premise of “Two Jews Walk Into a War,” playwright Seth Rozin’s nod to vaudeville and Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
The play, which runs through May 20 at the New Rep Theatre, opens with a coffin onstage flanked by Zeblyan (Jeremiah Kissel) and Ishaq (Joel Colodner). The men are mourning the fact that they have technically lost a third of the Jewish population in Afghanistan. Their friend Yakob has just died, and they are about to bury him. These two cantankerous old men are the last Jews in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Rozin got the idea to write about these two men from a 2002 New York Times article about the actual last two Jewish residents of Kabul. Their names were Isaac Levin and Zebulon Simintov, and they despised one another. They spent long, endless days that were fueled by their mutual antipathy. In the play, their relationship is alternately funny and sad, but mostly it’s shtick.
As the two men quarrel away their days, the audience learns that their families were Holocaust refugees. Zeblyan blames Ishaq’s family for luring them to Afghanistan with the promise of a better life after the war. Instead, they ended up in a country that hates Jews, setting off a cascade of arguments about who suffered more under the Taliban. It’s a game of one-upmanship that further involves who held on to their Judaism more fiercely in the concentration camps and gives this Afghan odd couple one of the few reasons they have to get up in the morning.
The 90-minute one-act play takes place inside a crumbling synagogue. The 16 or so short scenes are similarly constructed: argument, punch line and blackout. In between scenes is affecting music that is a satisfying mix of klezmer and Middle Eastern elements. The scene changes are brief, well timed and briskly paced.
Ishaq is the synagogue’s caretaker and never leaves the premises. Zeblyan, the worldlier of the two, is a carpet merchant who patronizes an internet café and buys lattes at Starbucks. At one point, a Dutch couple haggling off-stage with Zeblyan for a rug offer him an iPod as part of their down payment, and he’s thrilled to have this bit of the 21st century in his life.
At the heart of the play is the far-fetched plan that these two warring men somehow devise. It involves one of them converting a young Afghan woman to Judaism and giving birth to his child. Things get complicated when they realize they need a synagogue, a rabbi and ultimately a Torah to perform the conversion. The synagogue has deteriorated, the rabbi left a long time ago and the Taliban stole their only Torah along with other Jewish ritual objects.
Ishaq decides that the first order of business is to write a kosher Torah, which involves procuring parchment and ink to write it by hand. Ishaq, who has memorized the five books of the Torah, dictates, and Zeblyan is enlisted as the reluctant and cranky scribe. Throughout the process of creating a Torah, the two men take their bickering to new heights, and depending on your point of view, their shtick veers into irreverence with a touch of Borscht Belt humor or unfortunate commentary on verses about coveting a neighbor’s wife and prohibiting sex between two men. At one point, Zeblyan, who is not exactly a Torah scholar, notes that lusting after a husband or forbidding sex between two women is never mentioned. “Hashem likes a little girl-on-girl action,” Zeblyan quips. Ishaq is disgusted and tells his companion to keep his “deviant” commentary to himself. It’s sound advice I wish the playwright had taken.
While Kissel and Colodner do their best to keep the action moving along, their characters’ bickering becomes tedious and predictable. In the end, “Two Jews Walk Into a War” comes across as the set-up of a familiar joke that doesn’t quite deliver.
“Two Jews Walk Into a War” is at the New Rep Theatre in Watertown through May 20. Find information and tickets here.