Thursday, October 29, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Playwright Seth Rozin explores faith, humor

Seth Rozin. (Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Hap Erstein

Playwright Seth Rozin is the founder and producing artistic director of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company. But when it came to premiering his latest script, Two Jews Walk Into a War . . ., he thought that Florida Stage was a better fit.

So continuing in Manalapan through Nov. 29 is the seriocomic tale of a Middle Eastern Odd Couple, the last two Jews left alive in war-torn Afghanistan, a play inspired by a true story. They should be working together to see that they, and their religion, survives in this hostile land, but they hate each other’s guts.

Rozin was unable to attend rehearsals of his play, because he was busy readying another writer’s work for its opening night in late October at InterAct. Still, he took the time to talk to Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Hap Erstein about Two Jews, the Torah and the intersection of Samuel Beckett and Abbott and Costello. 

Erstein: Seth, tell me about discovering the factual story that led to your play.

Rozin: I was working on a show that was also Jewish-themed here in Philly and my assistant director brought in this article from the New York Times a few years back called something like, “The Last Two Jews of Kabul.”

It was a great story that just immediately suggested a theatrical dramatization. Basically, someone had died and these two guys determined that they were in fact the last two Jews probably in all of Afghanistan. They shared the one remaining synagogue which was partially destroyed by the Taliban, had endured a lifetime of oppression and brutality and the kicker, of course, is that they hate each other. So the truth was not far from what I ended up writing.

It just immediately said to me, “This has got to be written.” I got into it, wrote three or four scenes and was having fun with it when I discovered that there was another play inspired by the exact same story, something that had already been produced.

I read a review; it seems to have had one production, I believe in London, I think the play was called Brother’s Keeper. The review made it sound like it didn’t go anywhere with the idea, all it was about was these two guys who hate each other.

Erstein: Whereas you wanted to use the story to examine the limits of their faith, right?

Rozin: I did. I wasn’t 100 percent sure what, but I knew it had to be more than Grumpy Old Men. What I tend to be interested in with anything I write is exploring why people believe what they believe and what would shake that foundation, what would get them to believe something different.

And this was a great circumstance, two people who hate each other. So what would get them to feel differently about each other? But more importantly, they have been stubbornly, aggressively, defiantly staying in this not very tolerant place for their entire lives while they watched their families and others leave. So they obviously believe strongly in something about the place.

So that’s what I started to invest in and create -- this was all invented -- why each of them stayed and what motivates them to stick it out against all odds, and how that leads to some kind of leap of faith that they need to take together.

Erstein: You weren’t thrilled to hear there was another play on the same subject, but that did not lead you to toss yours away, I guess.

Rozin: Well, right, I thought I was on to something a little different and I now needed to pursue that. It sounded like the first one didn’t go anywhere, so I felt fine about that. But then a few months later, I think it was in February of this year, I learned that there was yet another play called The Last Two Jews of Kabul, written about the same story, the same title as my play at that point.

Erstein: That New York Times sure gets around.

Rozin: And Lou (Tyrrell, Florida Stage’s producing director) called me, this was right after he had expressed interest in it, and he brought this to my attention and I said, “Gee, I didn’t know about this one.” So I went online and read about that, and again it turned out that the very same impetus, but again one production and it seemed limited to just where the story stopped.

By that point my play had been far enough along in a whole new direction, so I was confident in the play itself, but I had to come up with a new title.

Erstein: Your title is meant to sound like the set-up for a joke, I assume.

Rozin: One of the ways I think this play is different from the others was the whole notion of using a vaudeville start to it. I love the phrase “Two Jews” and I wanted something that would let people think it was more comedic. I thought it was better to start comedic and turn dark than to have it be serious and people not want to come because they think it’s going to be a dark play.

Erstein: Dark or not, putting “Jews” in a title is a good way to sell tickets in South Florida.

Rozin: Yes, well, that too.

Erstein: How did Florida Stage get hold of the script?

Rozin: I sent it to just a handful of colleagues in the National New Play Network, either because I thought they would like the play or because they had a substantially Jewish audience. And Lou got back to me almost immediately. It was partly a lucky break in that they had originally planned to have a different play in this slot, a new play by one of the writers they have worked with quite a lot [Deborah Laufer’s Sirens].

Mine was also not 100 percent ready, but I think because it was far enough along in conception, they knew me, and because it was a two-character, very manageable play, I think they felt more confident in it.

Avi Hoffman and Gordon McConnell
in Two Jews Walk Into a War...

Erstein: It seems to have echoes of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Intentional on your part?

Rozin: I was very aware of Godot, but that comparison is almost inevitable because of the story in the first place. It was hard not to think of the existential, absurd predicament that these guys were in. So anybody who was going to write that play, I think, was going to seem at least a little bit like Beckett.

But the play surprised me, frankly, because I am not a religious person. I was not brought up with any allegiance to Judaism, I’ve never read the Torah, I was not bar mitzvahed, I didn’t have any religious upbringing at all, though I’ve always been somewhat interested in religion in general and in why people believe what they do.

So when I came up with the whole idea that they were going to try to recreate the Torah, I had a lot of reading to do. So I started looking through it and it was fun and challenging. I didn’t read literally the whole thing, but I poked through and found the parts that were useful, both in terms of funny or meaningful.

Erstein: The other influence I hear is Abbott and Costello. Are you a fan of theirs?

Rozin: Yeah, and the Marx Brothers, that sort of whole tradition of schticky dialogue, fast-paced, witty banter between people who are angry at each other, as opposed to just Bob Hope lightness. I like humor with an edge.

Erstein: How did you turn the corner into more serious territory?

Rozin: I think it was after I had written three or four scenes and I realized that all I had done was what the others had done. That that was fun, but there wasn’t really a play there. There had to be a journey, something had to change. That’s when I realized that something had to happen between them, that they had to do something together, something that would force them to work together that would either blow up into tragedy or bind them in some way. The thing I was really trying to avoid was sentimentality. I wanted there to be a friendship, but a dependence that grows without them being aware of it or wanting to acknowledge it.

Erstein: While the two characters sift through the Torah, they find some humorous contradictions in it.

Rozin: I’ve always believed that there were all kinds of hypocrisies and contradictions in religious thinking. I thought the whole sexuality thing was going to be useful, because it’s such an opportunity for comedy. And then the other stuff, like with the animals, that stuff I mostly found in service of the larger question, which is that there are things to interpret.

What happens is Ishaq seems to be the more devout, the more serious Jew, so to speak, in the beginning. But as we go on we learn that he in fact is a little bit of the take-it-at-its-word, don’t-question-anything type. That this is God’s word and that’s that.

And Zeblyan, who is in some ways more irreverent and less serious, and less faithful in a classic way, I guess, is actually asking the real questions. He’s losing his belief a little bit, but he’s asking the big questions, along with the stupid little ones.

Erstein: Do you tend to outline carefully or just put your characters in a room and watch where they lead you?

Rozin: Actually, I usually start with some kind of a question or circumstance that thrusts me into something and then I start to say, “What would they do?” “What would they say?” “What would they feel here?” And then as I get to know these people better and better, they start to tell me what they would ask, what they would do, what they would say. So, no, I didn’t know where this was headed.

Erstein: Why isn’t InterAct premiering this play?

Rozin: Well, first of all, when I sent it to the few colleagues I sent it to, it was in a slightly different form. It was a little less political and our mission is more overtly political. That’s one reason, but frankly, as much as I’ve been incredibly grateful to InterAct, it’s always nice as a playwright to have your plays get the affirmation that somebody else likes them before you put them up yourself.

Erstein: You got to know Florida Stage through the National New Play Network that your theater and Lou’s belong to?

Rozin: Absolutely. We became very, very close colleagues. Nan Barnett and I served together, I was president and she was vice-president of the network, for four years. And I’d gotten to know Lou a little bit through that and since working on the play I’ve gotten to know Lou really, really well and that’s been a real pleasure.

Erstein: Have you seen any of Florida Stage’s work?

Rozin: I’ve seen, I think, four productions there and I just know the high quality of the work. And it just felt right.

Erstein: How have you and Lou worked on the play together?

Rozin: I knew I wasn’t going to be there for rehearsals, so they brought me in for a three-day workshop in August with the cast. That was awesome, because we were really able to talk through the text. For me it was great to hear the actors. For Lou, it was great to try things out. I made some adjustments, I rewrote a couple of scenes and a whole bunch of little sections in scenes.

Then, since rehearsals started, I’ve gotten a rehearsal report every day, in which there is usually a couple of questions about lines or sections for me to look at and occasionally Lou would have to call and have me explain something.

Erstein: There doesn’t seem to be much stage action indicated in the script.

Rozin: I think that Lou is adding some stuff, some vaudeville stuff that I think is appropriate. There’s a scene where there’ll be some door slamming, because I think it needs some of that. There’s a real danger that it could be a little static.

Erstein: Were you concerned that Gordon McConnell, who plays Ishaq, is not Jewish?

Rozin: No, he’s a terrific actor and had no problem getting the basic sense of the character, though he was playing it with a kind of stereotypical New York Jewish accent. That was not quite right, but apart from that there really was no issue at all.

Avi [Hoffman, author-performer of Too Jewish?, who plays Zeblyan] of course brings all kinds of history to it. They also brought immediate chemistry to it, they had a great time together and that was fun to see. Because there has to be a lot of chemistry there.

Erstein: The Torah was new to you. Did you have what you wrote about it vetted by a rabbi?

Rozin: I did not. As I was writing it, I was actually working off of official sources so I didn’t feel like it was inaccurate. The interpretation is obviously up to whomever. But we did a reading here in Philadelphia, and one woman there asked me if I had consulted a rabbi because she thought it was very appropriate in terms of its content. So I mostly got affirmation.

Erstein: Are you prepared for the humorless audience members who will be offended by your play?

Rozin: Yeah, I know there will be some. Every show I’ve ever done, someone in the audience during the run says, like if we were doing Waiting for Godot, “Well, I have a son who’s name is Estragon and he would never act like this,” or whatever. There’s always one person who thinks that their experience, as it relates to the play, trumps everything that’s in the play.

But probably the biggest surprise in writing it, and I think the surprise for those who are going to see it, is that it ends up being an affirmation of faith. I didn’t expect to write that. I’m not a person who is all about writing about faith and how great it is. So I think the people who are going to be the most offended are probably the people who think it’s not true, because in the end there’s real value to this, as opposed to there not being.

Erstein: Three theaters in the network will be producing Two Jews this season, won’t they?

Rozin: Actually four. Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and New Jersey Repertory Theatre, who are pretty close to each other, are doing it together as a co-production, December through February. And then Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota is doing it, sometime in the spring.

Seth Rozin.

Erstein: You’ve written several other plays. What do they have in common?

Rozin: I think they have two things in common. One, as I said before, this notion of beliefs. There’s always characters that believe things and they have some kind of journey in which those beliefs are challenged and either shaken or not. And the other thing is there’s always at least one character who is impenetrable or stubborn or has a major blind spot, who at the end -- usually at the very end -- has some kind of a breakthrough.

Most of my plays have a lot of intellectual discourse, but resolve in a very emotional place. That’s really important to me.

Erstein: So why should we come see Two Jews Walk Into a War …?

Rozin: Well, I think it’s funny, I hope it’s funny. I think it’s human, in that you will go on a journey that has a satisfying, emotional punch to it. It’s short. I think it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I think you’re going to see two terrific actors have a good time onstage.

And I also think you’re going to be provoked to think about some interesting things that are relevant in the world today, about how we interpret things that we’ve been told or that have a particular meaning. Whether you’re religious or not. If you’re not religious, you’re going to resonate with the questioning, and if you are religious, you’re going to appreciate the affirmation of faith.

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