The Tenth Man is considered a curiosity in the catalog of the great writer Paddy Chayefsky, lacking the gritty realism of his famous early teleplays such as the classic “Marty” (later an award-winning film) or the sharp satiric edge of his later screenplays such as “Network” and “The Hospital”. This dramatic-mystical-comedic-romantic-fable about the exorcism of a young Jewish woman possessed by a spirit or “dybbuk” is rarely performed despite receiving a 1960 Tony® nomination for Best Play. While The Tenth Man may not have aged all that well, the committed and skillful production at American Century Theater offers satisfying entertainment even to those who are not theatre historians or devoted Chayefsky fans.
The Tenth Man is set at a shabby Orthodox synagogue in Mineola, Long Island, New York. Many of the characters are older first generation Americans who enjoy the social aspects of meeting at the synagogue and discussing matters such as their despised daughters-in-law. This need for society is so strong among the group that it even attracts an individual like Schlissel, a skeptic and atheist (played with great charm by Ron Sarro).
The play’s title refers to the need to find a tenth Jewish man early in the play for morning prayers and later that day for the exorcism. The men are so desperate that one of them literally goes out on the street to use emotional blackmail to drag in Arthur Brooks (Stephen Quartell), a divorced and disillusioned lawyer. As a result, he is present when Foreman (Richard Fiske) brings in his granddaughter Evelyn (Kari Ginsburg), a troubled young 18 year-old about to be institutionalized for schizophrenia after occasional bouts of violence with younger siblings.
Foreman hears from Evelyn’s lips the voice of a woman he impregnated as young man in the old country, complete with authentic accent and damning details. The wandering soul of the dybbuk hopes to use the young woman as a vehicle to Heaven, but unless the dybbuk can be exorcised, Evelyn may die. To a generation raised on films such as “The Exorcist”, this aspect of the story (despite Ms. Ginsburg’s solid efforts) and the most of the men’s reactions to the threat is one of the weaker aspects of the drama.
There are many ways in which this production works far beyond what can be expected from one of Chayefsky’s most padded and uneven works. The talented ensemble shines in its ability to capture the feeling of community among the men. Even when the humor that draws them together is a tad lame, the work of Ron Sarro, Mick Tinder (whose Zitorsky sounds a little like Gilbert Gottfried), Stephen Rourke (Alper), and friends grows upon the audience. The creative team (including Scenic Designer and Technical Director Jameson Shroyer) has produced a setting with a strong sense of place that feels authentic, at least for those of us who have never experienced a 1950’s Orthodox synagogue.
The two leads give strong performances. Kari Ginsburg is appealing and surprisingly funny in the role of the immature woman-child despite the many demands placed upon her (including possession, catatonia, and lovesickness). Steven Quartell imbues Arthur Brooks with enough intellect and dissatisfaction to make him the spiritual brother of Mad Men’s Don Draper. It seems perfectly logical that he’s undergoing the psychoanalysis that was trendy at the time and that he’s nonplussed by Evelyn’s history of uneven mental health. The two actors take an improbable couple and make them worth rooting for.
Director William Aitken is mostly successful at helping the cast wrestle with the uneven tone of The Tenth Man. Even when the too pat ending arrives (full of the characters essentially telling the audience what it all means in a borderline patronizing manner), the result is still a fulfilling experience. The audience leaves the American Century Theater’s production a little more cultured and a little more hopeful, and that’s a greater accomplishment than many productions achieve.
The Tenth Man
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by William Aitken
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
The Tenth Man plays thru Oct 16, 2010 at the Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.
THE TENTH MAN