APRIL 26, 2018 – What would the essence of Judaism be if there were only two Jews left?
According to “Two Jews Walk Into a War,” which is playing at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown from April 28 to May 20, the answer may be comedy. Not just any form of comedy, mind you, but vaudeville!
Combining risqué burlesque, simple song and dance, and physical comedy, vaudeville was a popular form of entertainment at the turn of the 20th century that spawned such talents as Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice, and George Burns through a circuit of over 2,000 theaters from coast to coast. Today, it is considered by many to be very much passé. According to Two Jews writer Seth Rozin, it is still very relevant.
When asked what gave him the age-old idea, Rozin said the incorporation of a vaudeville style was “something of an epiphany.” While he had grown up singing musical theater pieces around the family piano, he cannot recall any vaudevillians in his family. Fortunately, his own lack of familiarity can now transfer to the audience, who, Rozin assured, can “get” the play without knowing anything about vaudeville.
“This story just felt like it needed a more theatrical, heightened, performative style to its telling,” Rozin said.
The play is set in Kabul in the midst of the ongoing war. Despite its contemporary setting, however, co-star (and Temple Emunah Gabbai) Jeremiah Kissel suggested the play’s larger themes are “eternal.”
“Like most Jews in the Mideast,” Kissel said, “we’re just trying to survive. Maybe score a shtikle brisket.”
Rozin recalled a surprise inspiration for the setting of the play.
“The initial inspiration … was an article I read in the New York Times, about the last two Jews living in Afghanistan who had outlasted the Russians and the Taliban and who shared a desire to rebuild the Jewish community in Kabul, but who hated each other,” Rozin said.
Realizing that this real-life story was ripe for performance, Rozin set out to dramatize it through a play that was originally entitled “The Last Two Jews in Afghanistan.” Midway through the writing, however, Rozin realized that he was not the first to come to the idea. In fact, two other plays that had been inspired by the same article were simultaneously in the works.
“Even more deflating,” Rozin said, “was the fact that both plays had already been produced.”
Reading the reviews of the other plays, Rozin realized that the other treatments were far more realistic than his.
“Rather than give up, I decided to use the real-life story as a jumping-off point, and invented the entire story that has come to be Two Jews,” he said.
While the story is set in modern times, Kissel – who battles throughout with stage partner Joel Colodner – noted it keeps to the vaudeville style in not being fully in time.
“The scenes are assembled as they are with no meticulous eye toward following any precise timeline,” he said, describing the play as “15 separate skits that wind up telling the story end to end.”
Even if audience members do not know vaudeville, Kissel assured all will be well.
“It’s a play,” he smiled. “You buy a ticket, sit back, and go for the ride. If you snuck in without buying a ticket, it’s none of your business, anyway!”
The New Repertory Theatre performs at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.