We are at least 45 seconds into InterAct Theater Company’s production of Seth Rozin’s comedy Two Jews Walk into a War before a word is spoken. During the unusual but not entirely uncomfortable silence, two elderly men stand on either side of a wood coffin. The chapel of the synagogue they’re in has seen better days. Paint is peeling off the walls, the roof is partially caved in and the door looks like it’s been blown off its hinges. A Star of David hangs over the open doorway. “So?” one man says to the other. “So?” the other replies.
The two men represent the entirety of the Jewish population remaining in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. In the coffin lies the body of the city’s sole Rabbi. The synagogue is Kabul’s only Jewish house of worship and its tattered condition serves as a symbol for Afghanistan’s entire Jewish community, which has dwindled to no more than a handful. Now, it’s up to Zeblyan (John Pietrowski) and Ishaq (Tom Teti) to repopulate the community and carry on the traditions of their faith. It’s a tall order considering Zeblyan and Ishaq aren’t exactly the best of friends. In fact, they can’t stand each other.
Odd Couple, anyone?
Like most of Rozin’s plays, War is based on a true event, in this case the real-life story of Zbolon Semantov and Isaak Levi, who in 2002 were the subject of a short piece in the New York Times. The article inspired Rozin’s creativity and while Zeblyan’s and Ishaq’s situation mirrors that of their real-life counterparts, the majority of the play springs from Rozin’s imagination.
In tone, War is not unlike Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Like Godot, Rozin’s play is an existential comedy about two men struggling to discover meaning in a bleak world. And similar to Beckett’s main characters Didi and Gogo, the elderly Jews in Rozin’s comedy are like an old vaudeville comedy team, bantering and bickering and delivering jokes like “my underwear is holier than you” (in InterAct’s production each punchline is punctuated with a gunshot and the sound of a whizzing bullet courtesy of Jeff Knapp’s ghoulish sound design). However, where Godot showed us two vagabonds searching for faith in an absurd world, Rozin gives us two Jews who, despite the absurdity of their situation, have an abundance of faith.
It would be easy for Teti and Pietrowski to go over the top in their performances, but instead their portrayals are admirably restrained. For all their arguing, we get a real sense of the affection the two men come to feel each other and their quietly effective performances suit Rozin’s modest play nicely. Director James Glossman likewise takes a measured approach. His production of War is funny but it isn’t silly. In between the joke Rozin poses provocative questions about the meaning of faith and the various interpretations (both literal and figurative) of the Torah and other religious literature.
InterAct has a history of staging plays that relate directly to today’s headlines and with the death of Osama Bin Laden Rozin’s play about life under an oppressive Taliban regime takes on a renewed relevance. It is a tale of determination born from faith and a confirmation that human dignity and individual freedom can survive in the face of religious intolerance.
Through May 8. $27-$32. The Adrienne, Mainstage. 2030 Sansom St. interacttheatre.org
One Last PIFA Must-See
Now that it’s May, you may be kicking yourself for missing the Philadelphia International Arts Festival, which during April gave local patrons of the arts the opportunity to experience a host of Parisian-inspired events. Although the festival officially wrapped on May 1, there is still one enticing PIFA event running through May 15 at the German Society, where EgoPo Classic Theater is presenting the world premiere of Hell. A stage adaptation of Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel by Lane Savadove and Ross Beschler, Hell is the story of a World War I veteran (Beschler) who tries to escape the world by retreating to his room in a Paris boarding house. His life changes direction when he begins spying on the amorous couple next door through a small hole in the wall. In this titillating, sensuous production, director Lane Savadove casts the audience in the role of voyeur, encouraging us to peep through the darkness into the lives of strangers as their encounter love, death and adultery.
Through May 15. $30. The German Society. 611 Spring Garden St. 800.595.4TIX. egopo.org