Think of Samuel Beckett crossed with the comedy stylings of Henny Youngman (kids, Google him) and you’ll have some idea of the thrust of Theater J’s “Two Jews Walk Into a War.”
It’s not a bad setup for existential satire: transplanting, in effect, Neil Simon’s misery-embracing “The Sunshine Boys” to a fading house of worship in Central Asia, where the two men decide that the best use of their time is creating a Torah. This requires Bobby Smith’s Ishaq to dictate from memory the entirety of the sacred scroll to Sasha Olinick’s Zeblyan, who repeatedly makes mistakes that force them to start all over again. The rising mountain of crumpled parchment is a testament to their uphill struggle to preserve their traditions in a deeply hostile environment.
Adam Immerwahr, who left last year as Theater J’s artistic director, returns to the Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center to stage Rozin’s comedy. He fortunately has at his disposal two actors who’ve acquired extraordinary skill in the art of kvetching. (For the uninitiated, that’s Yiddish for complaining.) On Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set of the shabby shul, sniping at each other is what Zeblyan and Ishaq do, as they duel over Scripture, revisit old grievances and debate the possibility of repopulating the city’s Jewish community, which fled in the years of the initial Taliban takeover.
The hitch is that as the mounds of discarded parchment pile ever higher, the plot remains static underneath. Once the abrasive dynamic between Smith and Olinick has been established, the plot un-thickens, and like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, the audience waits for … something.
Ideally, “Two Jews Walk Into a War” would have provided some more expressively bitter taste of what’s going on outside the synagogue, some inkling of what Zeblyan and Ishaq are up against. Perhaps then, in that wonderfully contrarian way, we’d have a better idea of why they’ve stayed.
Two Jews Walk Into a War, by Seth Rozin. Directed by Adam Immerwahr. Set, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Alberto Segarra; sound, Sarah O’Halloran. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 5 at Edlavitch Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. theaterj.org.