For a while, there really were only two known Jews living in Afghanistan. Their names were Isaac Levin and Zebulon Simentov, and they hated each other. Documentary footage shot in the wake of the 2001 ouster of the Taliban regime shows two men driven through their long, lonely, and largely pointless days by little more than mutual antipathy. They are funny and sad — funny because their anger toward each other is ridiculous, sad because it's obviously a stand-in for the real trouble the men face: i.e., being the last two Jews in a country that doesn't like Jews. Such existential peril is probably too much for the mortal mind to process. The men, seeking smaller and safer targets for their frustrations than the nation of Afghanistan, homed in on each other.
I would be interested in a play that explored such a process, but Two Jews Walk Into a War, which had its world premiere last Friday at Florida Stage, isn't it. Seth Rozin's half-hearted attempt to dramatize Levin and Simentov's final few years together isn't deep enough to pose any questions of motivation or meaning, never mind answer them. In fact, his play is a slapstick comedy, or an attempt at one — think Dumb & Dumber, but dumber and set in Kabul. Its funniest moments are all fart-and-dick jokes, and the fart-and-dick jokes aren't that funny.
Actors Avi Hoffman (who plays Simentov) and Gordon McConnell (Levin) do the best they can. Hoffman spends the play contorting his epiglottis to unleash deranged little giggles that sound like growls; he comes off as both mean and oddly lascivious. (This is apparently intentional, as we see when Simentov lustily reinterprets Leviticus as giving sanction to lesbianism. No, don't ask.) McConnell is blandly convincing as the bewildered-but-devout Levin, who claims to have memorized the entire Torah.
Written by Seth Rozin. Directed by Louis Tyrell. With Avi Hoffman and Gordon McConnell. Presented through November 29 at Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Call 305-585-3433, or visit floridastage.org.
This is significant, for the crumbling synagogue that both men call home is missing its own Torah, which was long ago confiscated by the Taliban. In Rozin's play, a reconciliation takes place: Levin dictates the Torah to Simentov, who writes it out. The men grudgingly become friends.
I'm pretty sure that none of this actually happened, and its inclusion strikes me as treacly, unnecessary, and inappropriate. Why would the playwright posit religion as the cure to Levin and Simentov's ills when, in reality, their religion didn't do a thing for them but consign their lives to a trash-heap of a city, fought over by primitives who aspire to little more than killing one another? A perceptive audience may note that the pair's jokes are often punctuated by gunfire — a grim Middle Eastern approximation of the rimshot — that sends up little plumes of dust from the walls of Richard Cromwell's (gorgeous) set. As the men bond over their holy book, it should occur to us, as it cannot occur to them, that the unending battle raging outside is as much a product of that book as their newfound friendship.
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Perhaps this is what rankles me so much about Two Jews Walk Into a War: I have secularized myself to such an extent that I no longer find fundamentalism cute. Maybe the sight of Levin and Simentov yelling "I hate you ten times more than you hate me!" "No! I hate you 100 times more!" "Well, I hate you — times infinity!" would be more amusing if the men were not religious nuts and if the blood spilled by hate-filled religious nuts didn't soak so much of our history, ancient and modern.
No matter how much sentiment McConnell and Hoffman wring from scenes of their bonding over the Torah, they cannot change the fact that the lines they transcribe include prescriptions for the acquisition and treatment of slaves, a call for genocide and child rape, and divine orders to kill homosexuals. (The latter line, found in Leviticus, is the setup for what is supposed to be a terribly witty scene. As a victim of fag-bashing by God-fearing folk, I found it un-fucking-amusing.) Perhaps the audience managed to chuckle past such unpleasantness because the Torah and its companions and descendents — the Talmud, Bible, and Qur'an — are so ubiquitous. I submit that this is no excuse. Ubiquitous does not mean OK.
Those who worship a god that condones genocide and child rape are reprehensible, whether they call themselves Jews, Christians, Muslims, or anything else. Watching Levin and Simentov bond over the Torah, they might as well have been bonding over Mao's Little Red Book or Mein Kampf — the bile rose in my throat just the same. Around the world, thousands die daily because of such bronze-age barbarism, which Florida Stage has granted respectability and a patina of sweetness. I call bullshit.
But what the hell — thanks to the Enlightenment's collective pissing on the kinds of "holy" texts that Simentov and Levin revere, this is a free country. Seth Rozin can write any damned play he wants. I just wish he'd recognize that his play is set in the middle of a centuries-old tragedy, that said tragedy is not funny, and that the same savage ideology he celebrates in his play is responsible for the wreck of the city in which it is set. And barring that, I'd hope a smarter and better audience than we are would laugh at fundamentalism only through their tears. At Florida Stage, there wasn't a wet eye in the house.