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A Revival of ‘The Tenth Man’ Opens at Lincoln Center

December 11, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Paddy Chayefsky’s ″The Tenth Man,″ revived Sunday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, is a savvy mixture of Borscht Belt humor, religious mysticism and old-fashioned melodrama.

For much of its three acts, this fine comedy-drama is what used to be called ″a well-made play,″ those expertly constructed entertainments that flourished on Broadway until about the mid-1960s when theater economics skyrocketed and mass audiences dwindled for serious drama.

The story, set in 1959 - the year the play was first presented on Broadway -certainly is a sturdy one. A group of elderly Orthodox Jews gather at a shabby storefront synagogue on Long Island for morning prayers. But their meditations are interrupted by the arrival of Foreman, a member of the congregation, who has in tow his granddaughter. She’s a mentally disturbed young woman he believes is possessed by an evil spirit called a dybbuk.

If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Chayefsky’s play is a variation on ″The Dybbuk,″ S. Ansky’s drama which has been a staple of Yiddish theaters in this country since the 1920s.

Is the girl possessed or merely insane? Chayefsky shrewly keeps the audience guessing as he builds toward an exorcism of the demon in the final act. Until then, he offers loving portraits of his older characters, most of them idiosyncratic but expertly drawn and deftly acted.

The old men compare the relative merits of their cemetery plots, argue over how to get to Brooklyn on the subway and curse their respective daughters-in- law. ″My daughter-in-law, may she grow rich and buy a hotel with a thousand rooms and be found dead in every one of them,″ goes one such wish.

These men include Schissel the revolutionary, a non-believer played with cantankerous charm by Bob Dishy; Zitorsky, the garment manufacturer, a well- meaning hypocrite whose nervous comic energy is captured by Jack Weston and Alper (Ron Rifkin), a loyal friend to the beleaguered Foreman (Alan Manson).

Hirschman, the man who will perform the exorcism, is at the center of this testament to faith. Veteran character actor Joseph Wiseman brings a force and dignity to the role that makes the eventual ceremony all the more moving.

Into this museum of old men comes Arthur Brooks, dragged into the synagogue by the congregation’s sexton in an effort to reach a quorum of 10 men, the minimum number needed to conduct an Orthodox service.

Arthur is a young, alcoholic lawyer, disillusioned about life, love and religion. Chayefsky uses him to let the audience ponder the question of faith in a modern world that has forgotten how to believe. If that isn’t enough, the playwright also offers a portrait of a young, materialistic rabbi, a man more concerned about paying the bills and building up his congregation than in saving souls.

The play’s references to psychiatry and mental illness have not worn well over the last 30 years. Arthur tries to find his salvation in psychiatry. He’s on the telephone to his psychiatrist the minute he arrives at the synagogue.

Arthur’s relationship with the young woman - a credible job by Phoebe Cates in what is a difficult, almost impossible role - also is contrived. But actor Peter Friedman invests Arthur with a frantic sense of worthlessness that seems exactly right.

The play has been given an atmospheric production by director Ulu Grosbard who understands the significance of religious ritual in the lives of these old men. He emphasizes it with loving care.

From Santo Loquasto’s richly detailed set to Jane Greenwood’s authentic costumes to Dennis Parichy’s smoky lighting, ″The Tenth Man″ has the feeling of a folk tale that happens to be set in modern times. If its conclusion can’t quite be believed, the play itself offers a stirring endorsement to the power of faith and the wonderful characters Chayefsky has put on stage.

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What other critics said:

Frank Rich, The New York Times: ″The Tenth Man″ ... is ideal seasonal fare for those who like their holiday plays to go on as long as Hanukkah. ... In its eagerness to pander, ″The Tenth Man″ seems as cynical now as the television programming that Chayefsky would later attack in his screenplay for ″Network.″

Howard Kissel, Daily News: The evening has moments of power but lacks the mystery and tension to make the arrival of the title character more than merely funny. The overall feeling is closer to the amiable Leo Rosten than, say, the demonic Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Linda Winer, Newsday: The play manages to be both quaint and vital, neatly old-fashioned and modern, a curiosity, yes, but one that is loaded with the ornary wit, verbal richness and oversized heart that characterized his (Chayefsky’s) most enjoyable work.

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