When one conjures images of vaudeville, such images are usually connected to the “variety act” genre: a series of short skits, songs, gags and attractions that offered audiences more digestible snippets of theatrical entertainment than could otherwise be found in a conventional night of theatre. Seth Rozin’s “Two Jews Walk into a War…,” billed as “contemporary side-splitting vaudeville,” definitely departs from how one would normally think about a vaudevillian production, and yet, there are elements of the show that smartly capitalize on the nostalgia and throwback theatricality of what vaudeville represents.
It is a joy to watch these two actors…one is left with a sense of having been both entertained and also educated in regard to Jewish heritage and culture…a good night of theatre.
The production is based on a true story. Upon doing a bit of digging, Rozin discovered that there were in fact just two Jewish people left in Afghanistan where there once had been a population of 30,000+. It was the dynamic between these two last-standing Jews that intrigued Rozin and convinced him that there was comic gold to be mined from this relationship—and he was right.
In Rozin’s rendition of the story, Zeblyan and Ishaq have just lost their friend Yakob. Now down to just two members of the Afghani Jewish community, they are panicked, desperate to figure out how to increase their numbers and thus stave off extinction in this part of the world. They come up with a rather far-fetched and seemingly impossible plan to “repopulate” the country. Ishaq will find an Afghan wife, ask her to convert to Judaism, and thus begin siring children. There are, as would be expected, just a few problems with this irrationally devised solution. First off, the conversion process cannot take place without a rabbi or a Torah and the two men have neither at their disposal. So begins what constitutes the bulk of the play: the writing of a Torah.
While this setup reads as a rather absurdist plot for a production of this nature, that would seem to be the point. In conjunction with the nostalgic vaudevillian feel of the piece and the Neil Simon-esque overtones inherent in Zeblyan and Ishaq’s love/hate relationship, there is also a touch of Beckett bubbling beneath the surface. Rozin appears to leave no theatrical tradition untouched here. The head-scratching thought processes of these characters buck the linearity of a traditional play and instead, present audiences with an absurdist-inspired overview of the human condition.
The performance is composed of a series of short scenes, or rather, elaborate jokes. The pattern is setup – punchline – blackout. Still, through the series of brief comedic moments, there is an important story being told—one of begrudging friendship, one of regrets, of hope, and ultimately, the story of what it means to be Jewish in a hostile environment—tragically, an all-too-common theme as we are reminded.
The play, without question, is carried on the backs of Bobby Smith’s portrayal of Ishaq and Sasha Olinick’s Zeblyan. They sustain the 90-minute performance with as much wit, humor and unabashed emotion as they can muster. It is a joy to watch these two actors find their groove and consequently bring the audience into their otherwise dwindling fold. Perhaps that is the point here. There is hope in the larger, humanitarian sense of the term, as long as there is someone to listen to your story—and a little humor along the way never hurts.
Adam Immerwahr’s direction keeps the audience on their toes. Moving an audience from laughter immediately to a deeper concern for the fate of these two men is no easy feat. Immerwahr’s theatrical timing and strategic blocking deftly help crystalize the play’s more significant messages and funnier moments.
The cleverly contrived set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson also plays into the absurdist, nay, existential atmosphere suggested by a rundown synagogue in Kabul. You get the feeling that there is safety here and yet, it is still a place that is incredibly vulnerable to attack from those who would be happy if the last of the Afghan Jews disappeared. Sound design by Sarah O’Halloran and lighting by Alberto Segarra dynamically augment the story that is being told. In the end (which I won’t give away), one is left with a sense of having been both entertained and also educated in regard to Jewish heritage and culture—all in all, a good night of theatre.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Some adult themes and mature language.
“Two Jews Walk into a War” runs through February 5, 2023 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For tickets and more information, click here. All patrons in the Goldman Theater are required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth. Masks are optional but encouraged in the Q Street and 16th Street lobbies, hallways, and other public spaces.