The American Century Theater adds to the list of rarely seen but noteworthy shows local theatre buffs can actually see performed on a professional stage with the new production of Paddy Chayefsky’s strange comic drama "The Tenth Man," which has opened at the Gunston Arts Center for a one-month run.
Chayefsky was one of the best known playwrights of the middle of the last century, turning out teleplays and screenplays as well as Broadway fare with the stamp of realism but tinged with a taste for the bizarre. In this case, it is a warmly sentimental look at the denizens of a Jewish synagogue, or shule, on Long Island. In tone and time it isn’t too different from Chayefsky’s first big success, "Marty." However, in both the amount of whimsical humor and the number of colorful characters, "The Tenth Man" stands apart.
The action is set in a shule that had seen better times. Now, the few elderly members who attend have difficulty assembling the minimum number of Jews at one time to meet the "minyan," a quorum required by religious law for prayers. They are reduced to recruiting strangers on the street, asking "Are you a Jew?" in order to get to the required number, ten.
The action takes place on the day when the "tenth man" they manage to recruit is a young lawyer wandering the streets as he attempts to break the spell of suicidal feelings. He accepts the invitation into the shule primarily to get in out of the cold. It so happens, however, that this particular day a member of the synagogue brings his granddaughter in because he believes she has been possessed by a dybbuk: the soul of a person who died without prayers and who must inhabit another body to receive the blessings the soul desires. Grandfather wants the rites of exorcism to be administered in order to save her life.
Combining realism with the supernatural in a play that features comic characters as well as dramatic ones, "The Tenth Man" advances from suspense over the effort to find a full 10 men to questions of the faith of the participants. Even "the tenth man" finally decides to go along with the concept of exorcism, if only because he figures he might as well err on the side of caution in spite of his personal doubts.
"The Tenth Man" wasn’t Chayefsky’s biggest success. After his screenplay for "Marty" earned him his first Oscar, he went on to write screenplays for such now classic films as "The Hospital" and "Network." This play did earn him a Tony nomination for Best Play of 1960. However, it was a big year for quality plays and the award went to "The Miracle Worker." Joining Chayefsky’s play in the non-winner column was also Lorraine Hansbury’s "A Raisin in the Sun," Gore Vidal’s "The Best Man" and Lillian Hellman’s "Toys in the Attic." It was quite a year!
The American Century Theater has a mission of letting us step back to see what we might have seen on the stages of America’s theaters during the Twentieth Century and this production certainly is a mission fulfilling one, even if it is not as polished a production as one would want and not quite as good as some of the company’s best efforts.
Under director William Aitken, scrupulous attention is given to the script so that nearly every word Chayefsky wrote is clearly delivered to the audience. Some of the more comic characters among the elderly members of the shule are overplayed with mannerisms that verge on the stereotypical to the extent that you imagine some might be stock characters from Tevye’s wedding in "Fiddler on the Roof." However, each overcomes the initial impression as his character deepens. The fastidiousness of Mick Tinder as a retired tailor, the final transformation of Ron Sarro from protestations of atheism and the warmth of Stephen Rourke’s apparent love of tradition work well in the end.
It is the outsiders who stir things up in the piece. Steven Quartell combines a personal charm with an undercurrent of anxiety as the recruited title character who finds more than the warmth of a radiator when he comes in from the cold. Matching him with a fine performance as the possessed young lady is Kari Ginsburg who is highly believable as both the troubled young girl and as the demon which takes control of her at different times during the evening.
Chayefsky’s script is a bit disjointed as it spins its story from light comedy to suspenseful tale of the supernatural and then resolves itself briefly into a romance. But along the way there are a number of rich moments to enjoy.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.