Xmaz Exorcism

'Tis the season to be jolly, go shopping, trim the tree, and light the candles. And to be falsely pious. Right this moment it's ultrachic to embrace that Christmas and Chanukah spirit, even if it doesn't extend as far as helping a homeless man on the street, or committing a true act of spirituality. For most of us, ritual, eggnog, and Christmas lights make us feel like fine human beings; forget what we do the rest of the year.

The arts are not immune to such saccharine, false sentimentality. When I was on my way to see the Hollywood Performing Arts production of Paddy Chayefsky's wonderful play, The Tenth Man, hucksters from the venue located right next door, the Hollywood Playwrights' Theater, handed out leaflets and shouted "This is also a Jewish play! See it for Chanukah" -- referring to their rendition of Barbara LeBow's -- Shayna Maidel as though attending an ethnic play was as essential right now as going to church or synagogue. Well, hear this, snake oil salespeople of the Playwrights' Theater. Although I haven't seen your production yet, I did see LeBow's sensitive, delightful work in New York and I've got some news. It isn't a Jewish play -- it's a play.

The Tenth Man's appeal isn't limited to Jews, either. Despite the fact that Chayefsky's work -- which I fortunately did see -- is set in a temple and its main characters are old Jewish men, Judaism is just the frosting on the cake for what the great writer has to say. The play, which premiered in New York in 1959, is still pertinent today, as our society questions the value of God and ancient beliefs versus the more practical world of the Dow Jones and CD-ROM technology.

Into Chayefsky's world of several elderly religious men, most of whom attend temple every day simply because they have nothing better to do, wanders Evelyn, the granddaughter of one of the men; she is a young girl who is either:

1) clinically insane, or
2) possessed by a dybbuk, a demon or a wandering spirit who has been denied a proper burial. In this case, the nasty female spook is a woman that was debased (read: seduced) by the sick girl's grandfather many years before.

Smartly Chayefsky never firmly resolves the origins of Evelyn's psychotic behavior, whether it's mystically or biochemically derived, but he does ably deal with how modern man views faith. Even the rabbi at this run-down temple in Long Island is more interested in public relations and advancing his career than in old world myths. His character reminds me of a Jesuit priest I once had dinner with, who rolled his eyes upward in mock disgust when someone said grace. The old men's beliefs are varied as well: Schlissel is a communist and claims he's an atheist, regardless of the fact that he says his prayers every morning. The Sexton Athat's all he's called A is weary of trying to find ten Jewish men (you need ten for a minyan) to say prayers; he wants a better job. Zitorsky is more afraid of God and demons than in awe of them, and Hirschman, Evelyn's grandfather, can't decide whether he's doing the right thing by bringing the girl to the temple for exorcism.

Some of the play's charm comes from the humorous, rapid-fire interchanges that ensue between the old Jews ("My daughter-in-law," curses Zitorsky, "may she grow rich and buy a hotel with a thousand rooms and be found dead in every one of them"). But the main dramatic action comes via Arthur Brooks, dragged in off the street by the Sexton to be the tenth man. Brooks is a lawyer, upper middle class, successful, and chronically suicidal. Though a Jew by birth, he sees religion as hogwash and God as a myth equivalent to Zeus dragging a chariot across the skies. The only reason he stays is because of poor Evelyn Foreman, who holds a strange attraction for him. And the feeling is soon mutual.

To the young couple, their relationship appears to be no more than a bonding of a unipolar depressive and a schizophrenic. But to Hirschman, the religious mystic of the temple a strange old man obsessed with Kabala-based teachings, God has engineered this meeting. Both Evelyn and Arthur, in his opinion, are in the throes of dybbuk-dom A the girl by the soul of a dead wanderer, and Brooks by a demon who has taken away his joy of life and power to love.

Honestly, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this exciting, superbly written piece of theater, or to enjoy Jerry Waxman's perfect direction. Not only does he stage his large cast seamlessly, but he also elicits excellent performances from many actors who are quite long in the tooth. Jim Cordes as Schlissel is a riot, as is Harry Haugan as the meek Zitorsky; their quips lighten up even the darkest moments of the script. Also excellent are the two younger performers -- Christina Rumore as Evelyn and Bruce Yoskin as Arthur Brooks -- who endow their roles with honesty and humanity.

If you don't have to be Jewish to love this production of The Tenth Man, you don't have to be Christian to feel disappointed and slightly nauseated by the Florida Shakespeare Festival's Voices of Christmas. It's a major step backward for a new group trying to establish an artistic voice. Composed of songs from many nations, cutesy little anecdotes from the actors themselves (none of whom are writers, believe me), and free association about Christmas food and traditions ("jingle bells!" "Santa's lap!" "fruitcake!" A yeech!), this abomination A it certainly doesn't merit appearances in a theater A by West Coast author and director Ruben Sierra is pretentious, falsely joyous, and worst of all, artless. Mr. Sierra obviously feels that by decorating a stage like the ground floor of Saks' Fifth Avenue (complete with red and green trimmings galore and a BIG Christmas tree) and by getting a black actress, a Jewish actress, some Latin actors, and letting them talk about their different traditions, he's a forerunner in poignant literary liberalism. Sentiment doesn't come that cheaply to me, especially with such ineptitude. Even the singers, who aren't bad, are too small a group to properly convey the songs. If you want great caroling, go to midnight mass.

Every standard stereotype about ethnic groups is also annoyingly emphasized. The black woman "wants ta party," the chubby-cute Jewish girl speaks in a nasal voice, and the Latins cha-cha around. To explain how poor and in a certain way offensive this production is, I'll tell you how I honestly reacted. During my two-year tenure as a critic at this publication, I have only walked out at intermission (a time-honored tradition among critics, by the way) on three shows -- and this was one of them.

The cloying tone, which Sierra frantically seeks to foist upon the audience, is no better illustrated than by the forced performance of the usually talented Margot Moreland. Although fine in voice, Moreland poses, gestures, and emotes with such sickening and unconvincing sincerity, complete with a wide smile continuously plastered on her face, you want to throw a pie in her kisser. The theater is for portraying reality or comedy, Margot, not for selling Hallmark cards.

At another point, the Jewish token player -- Gail Byer -- tells of being an elf at Macy's in New York and seeing the true spirit of Christmas: a little boy giving his mug to Santa as a gift. If Sierra, or Byer, wanted to demonstrate anything but a shallow understanding of Christ's words, perhaps the story would be about helping a prostitute with HIV, or going to work in a food kitchen.

Since I don't believe that if there is an omnipotent Spirit, the cockles of His or Her heart are richly warmed by stories of Santa's reindeer or spinning dreidels, I have no problem knocking Christmas shows or plays set in temples. I review dramatic literature and performance, not good intentions. As such, The Tenth Man is worth seeing at any time of year, and Voices of Christmas should disappear with this holiday.


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