Check the Cosmopolitan Snobbery With Your Coat, It’s Just ‘Two Jews, Talking’

There are nuances in the interactions between the characters in Ed Weinberger’s short and ultimately bittersweet pair of one-act comedies that sparkle in the finely measured, knowing performances of Hal Linden and Bernie Koppell.

Russ Rowland
Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell in ‘Two Jews, Talking.’ Russ Rowland

More than 60 years ago, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner developed a sketch in which Reiner interviewed a Middle Eastern man claiming to be 2000 years old, played by Mr. Brooks, touching on subjects from physical longevity to marriage and fatherhood to historical and legendary figures.

Mr. Brooks’s responses — among them, “I never, ever touch fried food,” “I have over 42,000 children, and not one comes to visit me,” and, regarding Robin Hood, “He stole from everybody and kept everything” (but had a clever press agent) — reflected how Jewish humor had been woven inextricably into American culture while remaining, at least in the hands of certain practitioners, indelibly Jewish. Even when these jokes are superficially hokey or quaint, they can, when crafted adroitly, carry a resonance beyond their punch lines.

This is the case in “Two Jews, Talking,” a short and ultimately bittersweet pair of one-act comedies by a veteran television writer, Ed Weinberger. We’re first introduced to two men predating Mr. Brooks’s character, Lou and Bud — respectively played by Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell, familiar faces to any TV fan born before, say, the Watergate hearings — as they follow Moses through the Sinai Peninsula. The play then jumps ahead more than three millennia to the present, with Messrs. Linden and Kopell cast as Marty and Phil, two strangers who meet on a park bench.

The play’s first line — “Oy vey, my fakakta feet” — is spoken by Lou, who’s questioning his decision to spend decades schlepping through the desert in search of the Promised Land. (Be assured that Yiddish is used sparingly, if you’re worried that yours is rusty.) Bud is more of a true believer, and the debate that ensues between them — “You’re being too hard on God,” Bud tells Lou at one point, noting, “We are His first people” — underlines the tension between faith and skepticism embedded in their religion. 

This dynamic is mirrored in the second part of “Two Jews,” when Mr. Linden’s Marty, a widower, complains to Mr. Kopell’s Phil, a divorcé, that God is self-centered — “He makes everything about Him” — and adds, “Thousands of years ago God couldn’t shut up. He talked to Adam. He talked to Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Moses’s brother Aaron…. Today, suddenly the cat’s got His tongue.”

Phil suggests, “Maybe God’s waiting for just the right man,” to which Marty retorts, “Yeah. Him and my cousin Brenda.”

Like music, comedy arises in part from the impulse to acknowledge and relieve suffering, which is why it’s no accident that Jewish and Black artists have been prominent in both fields. Mr. Weinberger collaborated on standup routines with Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor and wrote for Johnny Carson before helping create series such as “Taxi” and “The Cosby Show,” and there are moments in “Two Jews” when the writer mines laughs and poignance from anecdotes and observations that seem neither funny nor profound at face value.

There are also lines that would fit right into a stale Borscht Belt routine, but not many. “Two Jews” isn’t highbrow stuff — it doesn’t aim to be — and cosmopolitan snobs, if they turn up at all, may tune out as soon as Lou starts recalling the chopped liver and cold cuts at the last orgy he attended. That’s too bad for them, because there are nuances in the interactions between both sets of characters that sparkle in the finely measured, knowing performances of Messrs. Linden and Koppell, which are directed with obvious affection by Dan Wackerman.

They can be little things, like Phil’s grim reluctance to eat a grape Marty offers him without knowing whether it’s seedless — “It’s not like I’m asking you to bungee jump into the Grand Canyon,” Phil finally says — or Marty’s determination to surprise Phil with his dated jokes, among them a morose chestnut with the punchline, “It couldn’t hurt.” 

In fact, though this may be in part because I wasn’t around when Mr. Brooks introduced the world’s oldest human, I found Mr. Weinberger’s work — which, at 85 minutes, runs roughly seven times as long as the original recording of the “2000 Year Old Man” sketch — to be funnier. You can buy a ticket and decide for yourself. It couldn’t hurt. 

The New York Sun

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