WATERTOWN — I’ve previously admitted that I could contentedly pass an evening watching Jeremiah Kissel and Joel Colodner read from the telephone book, so consistently compelling are both actors.
As it happens, that sublime duo has considerably more than a phone book to work with in Seth Rozin’s “Two Jews Walk Into a War . . .,’’ now at New Repertory Theatre under the sure-handed direction of Will LeBow.
Subtitled “A Vaudeville,’’ Rozin’s Kabul-set comedy is so stuffed — overstuffed, really — with one-liners and situational shtick that it could be retitled “The Odd Couple Goes to Afghanistan,’’ or maybe “The Borscht Belt, Central Asia Precinct.’’ But Kissel, Colodner, and LeBow dig beneath the play’s quippy surface to convey the ache of loss — personal and cultural — that undergirds the constant squabbling between the two title figures.
Both the interpersonal tension and the underlying ache stem from the unusual predicament facing the devout, high-minded Ishaq (Colodner), who’s in his 60s, and the irreverent, short-fused Zeblyan (Kissel), who’s in his 50s: With the recent death of a fellow named Yakob, they are now the last two Jewish residents in all of Kabul.
Does this draw these survivors together in solidarity? Not at first, by a long shot. Indeed, Yakob’s body is barely cold before Ishaq and Zeblyan are quarreling over the exact nature of their relationship with the deceased, who served as a buffer between them. (“You were his lapdog,’’ says Zeblyan; “He thought you were a bully and a thug,’’ fires back Ishaq.) Their verbal combat in the opening scene amid the near-ruins of the sole remaining synagogue in Kabul (the somber set is by Jon Savage) quickly establishes the contours of their highly dissimilar personalities, making it clear how challenging coexistence in a Yakob-less world will be, even though their surroundings could scarcely be more hostile.
Ishaq and Zeblyan are forced to cooperate once they agree on a shared mission. Ishaq is determined to repopulate the Jewish community and keep Judaism alive in the war-torn city. Zeblyan comes up with the idea to build a new synagogue. Years earlier, the Taliban had damaged the synagogue, stolen the Torah, and killed their rabbi. To attract a new rabbi, Ishaq reasons, they need to create their own Torah.
It’s a laborious task, but possibly doable, since Ishaq has memorized the Five Books of Moses, down to every comma and colon. However, the scripture must be written on parchment by hand. For that job, Ishaq enlists Zeblyan, who proves a grumpy scribe, although he does eventually find religion, as it were. “I mean, all those ‘thy’s’ and ‘thee’s’ and ‘unto’s’ kind of make your eyes glaze over the first time, you know?’’ he tells Ishaq. “But I have to say, it kind of grows on you.’’ This cavalier summary, of course, reduces Ishaq to wrathful sputtering: “The single greatest story in the history of humankind ‘kind of grows on you’!’’
Amid debates over how literally scripture should be interpreted (Zeblyan has a particular problem with the scriptural prohibition against “spilling our seed’’), playwright Rozin artfully weaves in weighty matters of faith, fate, free will, the Jewish people’s long history of suffering, and the question of whether there is a larger purpose to existence.
Both Kissel and director LeBow know this play and its possibilities well, having realized those possibilities back in 2011 when they costarred in a fine production of “Two Jews Walk Into a War . . .’’ at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Kissel and Colodner have also provided earlier evidence of how successfully they could work together, albeit with very different material, when they teamed up four years ago at New Rep in a production of Deborah Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff.’’
In “Two Jews Walk Into a War . . .,’’ both actors once more prove adept at the balancing act of collaboration, demonstrating spot-on timing in their scenes together. But they also bring individual shadings to characters who might have come across as caricatures in less skilled hands. Perhaps most important, these exemplary performers negotiate the play’s transitions from all-out absurdity to sober awareness of the tragedy of life as if both conditions were one and the same. Perhaps that’s why I found myself pondering the tantalizing prospect of Colodner and Kissel teaming up again someday as another vaudevillian duo with existential matters on their minds: Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.’’ After all, Samuel Beckett knew better than anyone that the human comedy invariably provides the best material.
TWO JEWS WALK INTO A WAR . . .
Play by Seth Rozin. Directed by Will LeBow. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through May 20. Tickets $37-$67, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org.Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.