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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Two Jews Walk Into a War. . .

(In the voice of a TV commercial) Tired of the routine of middle class life in an affluent country, come live in historic Kabul, where the combination of rugged terrain, political dysfunction, and a complete lack of religious freedom guarantees a lifetime of challenges. — Ishaq
Just remember, Ishaq The Sarcastic: My family followed yours here in the first place. Fresh out of the camps! Everyone else was going to India or Israel or America and your family insisted Afghanistan was "the place our people could call home. — Zeblyan

Reathel Bean and John Pietrowski in Two Jews Walk Into A War. . .
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
The title sounds like the beginning of a joke. There is a good reason for it, as the two middle-aged Afghani Jews who inhabit Seth Rozin's comedy Two Jews Walk Into a War. . . play off each other like two old and seasoned vaudevillians performing in a lengthy skit on the stage of the Palace Theater. It is a good way to commiserate with Ishaq (Reathal Bean) and Zeblyan (John Pietrowski), who bicker and bait, berate and bash each other with unrelenting gusto.

The reality, if there is such a thing, is that they are evidently not making light of their extremely precarious situation and the uncertainty of their future. They can't help it if they are funny, any more than they can help being the last two Jews in Kabul following the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. The last standing synagogue in the Afghanistan city has become their personal sanctuary where , despite their hatred for each other, they hatch a plan to do what they can to keep Jewry alive in the city they and their families had made their home.

The streets still echo with gun shots and explosions, but it is the sound of Ishaq and Zeblyan shouting insults at each other and even eventually resorting to physical assault that are more likely to shake the near-to-crumbling walls. We don't know why Ishaq and Zeblyan hate each other, but they do. Each is now alone and each has suffered loss of family, either from death, escape or departure. It is the plan they hatch, and their attempt to carry it out despite the odds and the inherent impracticality, that is the basis for the plot. What really serves the play and the motivation for Ishaq and Zeblyan's extraordinary behavior is their mutual commitment to preserve the presence of Jewry.

The best way to achieve this end, according to Ishaq, is to convert a couple of Afghani women to Judaism and have them bear their children. Of course they need a rabbi for this. Of course, they can't get a rabbi to come without a torah. Sadly the only torah has been destroyed by the Taliban. Ishaq is not only a scholar of the torah, but has memorized it, including all the punctuation. He will dictate and Zeblyan will be the scribe. Believe it or not, it is in the dictation of the text of the torah (the Jewish code of laws) that fuels the testy relationship between Ishaq and Zeblyan, always at odds, always at war with each other.

Playwright Rozin, who is also the founder and artistic director of Philadelphia's InterAct Theater Company, was apparently inspired by a real-life incident as reported by the media about "the last two Jews in Afghanistan." Rozin's play is clearly meant as a comic riff on an obviously poignant situation.

The play consists entirely of brief but brittle episodes, many lasting no more than a few minutes, that generally are nothing more than a set-up for a flare-up or, more likely, a punch-line . . . and blackout. The comedy is broad, without regard for subtleties that don't exist. Highlights include a scene in which they try to outdo each other's experiences of being tortured by the Taliban; another in which Zeblyan questions why G-d presumably sanctions Lesbians, as there is nothing in the text that says women cannot lie down with women; and another in which Zeblyan recites the entire list of animals that are not kosher. It's all in the delivery.

It is to director James Glossman's credit that each scene pays off and that the play proceeds to entertain even as it reaches a somewhat sad, if not totally credible, conclusion. It appears that Glossman, who is also associate artistic director at Playwrights Theater (New Jersey), didn't have to look far for the actor to play Zeblyan. Hiding behind that beard is Pietrowski, who as Zeblyan, sees as his primary mission to question the logic of the holy text, thereby infuriating Ishaq. Pietrowski has given a number of fine performances, most notably at the Playwrights Theater where he is also the Artistic Director.

Veteran actor Bean, who was most recently seen on Broadway in Caroline, or Change, is splendid as the Ishaq, whose unshakably devout beliefs are constantly put to the test by the deliberately antagonistic Zeblyan. If a whiff of sentimentality eventually penetrates the otherwise glib and guffaw-propelled script, we are not disposed to reject it in the name of credibility. While, in fact, there is nothing real about what we are seeing or what we hear, it remains for us to ponder the haunting reality of what it means and what it takes to preserve a faith and a culture in the face of all evidence and arguments to the contrary. No one will doubt that the chapel of the synagogue as created by scenic designer Drew Francis has not been under siege. Kudos also to lighting designer Jill Nable and to sound designer Jeff Knapp.

Two Jews Walk Into A War . . . is being presented as part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. The three premieres include the Florida Stage; a co-production of New Jersey Repertory Company and Playwrights Theater (where it will move directly after this engagement) and Florida Studio Theater.

Two Jews Walk Into a War. . .
  By Seth Rozin
  Directed by James Glossman

Cast: Reathel Bean (Ishaq), John Pietrowski (Zeblyan)
  Scenic Design: Drew Francis
  Lighting design: Jill Nagle
  Costume Design: Patricia e. Doherty
  Sound Design: Jeff Knapp
  Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
  New Jersey Playwrights Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ (732) 229 — 3166
  Tickets ($40; $36 (senior and full-time students)
  Performances: Thursdays, Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM; Sundays at 2 PM with selected Sundays at 7 PM.
  Opened 12/12/09
  Ends 01/10/10
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/12/09
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