Larry Jay Tish is making a career of wielding wit to battle the dark side of humanity.
For nearly a decade, he has toured the United States and the United Kingdom as the Jewish half of “The Black-Jew Dialogues,” a multimedia variety show that skewers prejudice and stereotyping.
On Thursday, the 54-year-old Cambridge resident tackles humanity at its most inhumane with “The Last Jews: An Apocalyptic Comedy.” It’s set in a North Dakota bunker after a Canadian-led genocide has wiped out all but two Jews, Gertrude and Morty, who hadn’t spoken to each other since their bitter divorce two decades before.
Against the backdrop of hate, a young couple from the Sierra Club — Gus and Frances — tries to reconcile the ex-lovers so that they can give birth to a new generation of Jews. Through zingers rather than sermons, Tish dissects the forces that pull us apart and bring us together.
“The Last Jews” is being staged thanks to contributions and a fellowship from Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, where it will run May 1-11.
Q. You’re publicizing the play as a love story with a genocide twist. Why genocide?
A. I think the seed of it came when I went to Dachau a number of years ago. Part of my experience at Dachau is in the play. That’s where the thought came to me: What if they got everybody? Even if they did get everybody, it’s still about individual people. So it became this love story about the last two Jews on earth who happen to be an estranged couple. The genocide and the annihilation of the Jewish population is what gets these two together and fuels their rekindling and their love story. If this didn’t happen, they probably never would have seen each
other again. The stuff that kept them apart gets smaller and smaller in terms
of the big picture.
Q. Why did you make the Canadians the villains?
A. I wanted to flip reality on its head. Canadians are just really nice people. I thought what if maybe they’re not so nice. So when [bad] things started to happen in Canada, Jews get blamed. Hate is on a rampage and needed a scapegoat, and the default is the Jews. It also led into Gertrude talking about [the Nazi showplace ghetto] Theresienstadt: “How did the Red Cross not know this was bogus — it’s too nice. So never trust too nice.”
Q. And why the Sierra Club as the saviors?
A. I like using absurdity to reveal the truth. When I think about a species that’s almost extinct, I think about the Sierra Club. When we dehumanize people and hate them enough, they become animals, just like Hitler called us rats. He had a whole country thinking we were rats. That’s the thing that really bothers me. When I went to Dachau, there was a path that led to a village where the guards used to live with their families. They would leave work and go to their families. Their kids would run up, yelling “Hi Daddy.”
Q. Are the last Jews based on people you know?
A. I thought about my grandparents and their relationship of 60-something years and how they used to fight all the time, but they loved each other. Both were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were what gave me the pride and joy and love of Judaism.
Q. You’ve been married 27 years; did you draw on that as well?
A. Of course. One thing that comes up in the play is the lack of communication that Morty and Gert seemed to have that was part of the cause of their separating. I have learned to not only communicate better with my wife, but to try and listen more than I speak. I remember telling Robin, my wife, “I’m a man; I’m doing the best I can.” Gus says that line in the play to Frances.
Q. Will this play appeal to non-Jews?
A. One of my dear friends is Armenian. He’s seeing his experience with his grandmother in a lot of what’s going on in the play. He relates to the hope at the end of it, the awakening, the understanding of hate squared and squared again. The story is bigger than just the Jews.
Q. Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” satirizes the Nazis. Was that film an influence?
A. I would say that Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” was more of an influence. He made that when Hitler was still in power, taking on the absurdity of what was going on. That movie really touched me. I was also inspired by Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” about a father’s relationship with his son in a concentration camp. That was the first time that I’m aware of that anyone used this type of environment to create humor. They say that humor is time versus perspective. I guess 60 years is enough time on something as tragic as that.Interview has been edited and condensed. Steven Maas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.