Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Theater review: 'Two Jews' a standout at Florida Stage

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

By Hap Erstein

Wait, stop me if you’ve heard this one: There are these two old Jewish guys in Kabul, Afghanistan, see, and not only are they the last two surviving members of their much-persecuted religion, but they hate each other’s guts almost as much as they despise the Taliban.

Their days are surely numbered, so they have to figure out a way to perpetuate Judaism in their land before they die. Yes, it sounds like the set-up for a joke, but all of the above actually happened.

Just ask playwright Seth Rozin, who read about it in The New York Times and proceeded to turn the situation into a play, Two Jews Walk into a War …, which has just begun its world premiere run at Florida Stage through Nov. 29.

Given a subject of such potentially tragic consequences, of course the play is a comedy. Sort of a cross between the dark existential humor of Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon and the nimble comic byplay of vaudeville’s Abbott and Costello.

The comedy comes easily to Rozin and it is made all the funnier by the deft delivery of Avi Hoffman and Gordon McConnell as skeptical Zeblyan and more devout, self-proclaimed “Torah geek” Ishaq, his mortal enemy. Ultimately, Two Jews … is a play about renewal of faith, but you will have to take it on faith that the two characters are so willing to cast aside their differences and work together to copy down the words of the Torah -- the Jewish code of laws. That exercise, by some convoluted logic, will allow an Afghani woman to convert to Judaism and bring the religion one step closer to living on.

Uh, just go along with it, it will be worth it.

For most of the evening -- while bullets fly all around the dilapidated synagogue that the two men are so desperate to save -- Ishaq dictates the text of the Torah, which he happens to have memorized, and Zeblyan endeavors to commit it to parchment. As he does, Zeb considers the words, probably for the first time, and finds that God’s dos and don’ts for thee and thou contains a perplexing number of inconsistencies and loopholes.

And in their humble, mortal way, the start to question God. After all, if He is so adamantly against mankind lying down with mankind, why does He not bother to forbid women being with women? Does God have a soft spot for lesbians? And after painstakingly listing all the hoofed animals that are not kosher, why does he not even mention elephants?

Rozin amuses himself, and the audience, poking fun at religion, but then an interesting thing happens. In the process of questioning the Torah’s teachings, Zeblyan gains an unexpected respect for the religion as he hurries to makes his deadline. As a result, the play turns a corner, moving from a comedy sketch to a work that not only holds our interest for 90 intermissionless minutes, but offers something worth thinking about.

Before the serious side of Two Jews. . . comes into focus, Hoffman and McConnell channel a lot of classic comics. As Hoffman gets ready to write, he waves his arms in a flourish of preparation that is pure art -- Art Carney from The Honeymooners.

McConnell wears a perpetual scowl of disapproval that brings to mind Oliver Hardy, and when the two of them degenerate into rolling on the ground in a physical squabble, it is hard not to think of the Two Stooges. Lou Tyrrell directs the evening by injecting lots of movement for his two-man cast, counteracting the play’s wordiness and keeping the production from feeling static.

Ishaq and Zeblyan are the show, but if Two Jews. . . has a third character, it is surely Richard Crowell’s synagogue set. Funny enough in its truly sad state, the house of worship has a few comic gotchas of its own, as it crumbles before our eyes beginning right at the start of the play. And reminders of the ongoing conflict happening just outside its walls occur at regular intervals as stray gunshots, and their collateral dust clouds, accentuate the dialogue like comic rim shots.

In addition to the gags, there is a human wisdom to Rozin’s play that should mean it might outlive the fighting in Afghanistan, not that it is ending anytime soon. Both ripped from the headlines and also timeless, Two Jews Walk Into a War… is exactly why we go to Florida Stage, and have been for the past 22 seasons.

TWO JEWS WALK INTO A WAR . . ., Florida Stage, 262 S, Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Continuing through Nov. 29. Tickets: $45-$48. Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

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