Paddy Chayefsky's "The Tenth Man" is a fable about the exorcism of a dybbuk, a stranded soul who has possessed a young woman's body. Ultimately the play, delicately poised between superstition and recondite theology, is about belief.
Written in the '50s, a period even more materialistic than our own, the play, which has been given a handsome, timely revival, was quite daring in its suggestion that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
As its wisest character tells an agnostic, "You are a man possessed by the Tangible. If you cannot touch it with your fingers, it simply does not exist. That will be the mark of your generation - that you took everything for granted and believed in nothing."
If Chayefsky was flirting with mysticism and serious belief, he tempered these weighty matters with humor, which, for Jews, has always been an alloy of wisdom. Ulu Grosbard's production stresses the play's abundant comedy, sometimes to the detriment of the whole.
Chayefsky was a great craftsman, balancing his plot about the recovery of belief with traditional Jewish cynicism. If the balance is off, it's like a storyteller fumbling with details. The spell he has cast is broken. The story should have the force and wonder of a whirlwind; here it is as breezy as a zephyr.
Certain performances project the play's poetry beautifully, particularly the luminous Joseph Wiseman as the cabalist and the spectacular Peter Friedman as the agnostic. Phoebe Cates is touching as the possessed girl.
The play misses its full impact because there is little ensemble feeling. When you have actors as idiosyncratic as Bob Dishy and Jack Weston, the work's rhythms are subordinated to those of the performers. Sidney Armus as the harried sexton always in search of the 10 men needed for Jewish prayer gets laughs without weakening the pace. So does the admirable Ron Rifkin. Michael Mantell is strong as a cynical rabbi, Alan Manson sympathetic as the girl's grandfather.
Santo Loquasto's poetic set, eloquently lit by Dennis Parichy, is an apt background for the mystical events.
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.
Critically blessed by Brooks Atkinson, who should have known better, and tricked out with a staging by Tyrone Guthrie, who very occasionally did, Paddy Chayevsky's "The Tenth Man" was one of the hits of the 1959 Broadway season.
It still has its merits, but these now seem slender indeed when measured against its faults.
Last night at the Vivian Beaumont the Lincoln Center Theater attempted a major revival of "The Tenth Man," a work seemingly well in accord with the company's current exploration of Broadway's past, an excursion that has already brought us "The Front Page" and "Our Town."
In both of those instances careful polishing brought them up as fresh instances of dramatic craftsmanship well worth preserving in repertory memory - but when "The Tenth Man" is weighed in such a balance, in my opinion, it comes up wanting.
The play is a modern variant on the theme of S. Ansky's popular Yiddish melodrama, "The Dybbuk." Set in a shabby, storefront orthodox synagogue in Long Island in 1959, "The Tenth Man" centers on a disturbed young girl, whose soul is possibly possessed by an evil spirit, and the efforts of the congregation to exorcise it.
There is a certain degree of Cabalistic mysticism about the theme, and the ending, intended by the author as a surprise, suggests that the modern disease of disillusionment - seemingly defined by Chayevsky as an inability to love - is itself an evil spirit that has taken over many of our souls, but capable of exorcism.
Chayevsky is more important in the history of drama than either his present standing or his sterner contemporary critics would allow - but less for what he has left, by way of plays, than for what he did, by way of example.
He was arguably the first playwright of record to take note of modern technology - particularly TV and the tape recorder. During the second part of the present century, the tape recorder redefined dramatic speech by making us listen to the way people actually spoke, rather than the way playwrights wanted them to speak.
Chayevsky, whose working background came from the days of live TV drama, understood this instinctively - and as a result his speeches quiver in the air with a reverberating reality.
Of course he took liberties with both his people and their talk - drawing them quaint, coloring them humorous - but by and large his people spoke as people, not as dramatis personae. The speech patterns are true, and the sentiments, on their own specific level, usually genuine.
Unfortunately Chayevsky had a lump of sugar-candy where his heart should have been. He was more interested in manipulating an audience than in enlightening it. He would massage rather than stimulate, and he had an inordinate need (unhealthy in any artist) to be popular, to be loved.
"The Tenth Man" is a serious phony. It has pretensions way beyond the level of its thought, or the scope of its feelings.
The young man - a renegade Jew, who has found much success as a lawyer but no happiness as a man - taken off the street by the anxious sexton to be the tenth man making up the quorum required for Morning Prayers in a Jewish orthodox synagogue, is a pasteboard figure of crass modern disillusionment.
The young girl, devoured by the unquiet spirit of the Dybbuk, and who can disconertingly break into heavily accented speeches about being "The Whore of Kiev," is a similar set-up for dramatic contrivance.
As a result the play's attempted spiritual message that love makes the world go around falls flat, and the larger issues that Chayevsky attempts to pull out of his mixture of melodrama and small talk remain resolutely unpulled.
What is left is atmosphere, dialogue and sharp-etched vignettes offering images of a lifestyle.
The down-at-heel synagogue, with its gorgeous ark, its flurry of talliths and phylacteries, its air of an old-man's club combined with a religious seminary, is lovingly conveyed, and in this production the playwright is helped by carefully evocative setting by Santo Loquasto and the costumes by Jane Greenwood.
And at times, Chayevsky strikes unerringly to the heart of people. Such touches as the old men arguing over the respective merits of their funeral plots, or getting lost on the subway, or the young rabbi on the telephone, giving a younger colleague practical advice - "get up a Junior League team" - on how to succeed in the business, have the breath of life to them.
The present director, Ulu Grosbard, seems to have a shrewd sense of the play's strengths. He emphasizes the small characterizations - and here the likes of Bob Dishy, Ron Rifkin and Jack Weston in the cast make an invaluable contribution - and seems to underplay the central theme.
The terrific coup de theatre organized by Guthrie at the play's climax (when the scene went black, and an unknown body thudded down at the height of the exorcism) has been abandoned.
Perhaps this was simply for technical reasons - it would probably be difficult to black out completely the Beaumont stage - yet it seems at one with a production that tries to emphasize qualities of genre rather than scope of theme.
As the disturbed girl, Phoebe Cates gives a properly artificial performance, while as the almost equally disturbed lawyer, Peter Friedman resourcefully handles an impossible role. Among the rest ALan Manson does well as the girl's uncle who first smells out the Dybbuk, and as a strange Cabala scholar, Joseph Wiseman stylishly dominates every scene he is offered.
''The 10th Man,'' Paddy Chayefsky's drama about the dwindling congregation of an Orthodox synagogue on Long Island, is ideal seasonal fare for those who like their holiday plays to go on as long as Hanukkah.
A hit in Tyrone Guthrie's staging at the snug Booth Theater on Broadway in 1959, ''The 10th Man'' looks forlorn as it strains to fill the vast Vivian Beaumont. Why did Lincoln Center Theater choose so obviously dated a work for exhumation? Perhaps it's because of the modest success achieved by the nostalgic revival of Hy Kraft's equally sentimental but much funnier and far less pretentious ''Cafe Crown'' (of 1942) at the New York Shakespeare Festival last season.
What's next? Maybe it's time to disinter the Broadway vehicles Leonard Spigelgass wrote for Gertrude Berg 30 years ago, ''A Majority of One'' and ''Dear Me, the Sky Is Falling,'' so Charles Busch can perform them in repertory.
Like ''Cafe Crown,'' ''The 10th Man'' is served up with a sizable cast including Bob Dishy and with a realistic set by Santo Loquasto. But this is ''Cafe Crown'' on a fast. Mr. Dishy, a memorable Second Avenue waiter in the Kraft comedy, can do only so much with the heavier stereotype of a crabby socialist-atheist; Mr. Loquasto's design for a shabby Mineola storefront temple, all too authentically brackish in color, becomes as oppressive as a ''Fidelio'' dungeon when bloated to Beaumont dimensions.
Even such welcome old-school shtick artists as Jack Weston, Sidney Armus, Ron Rifkin, Alan Manson and Carl Don often fade into the hulking woodwork. The meager wisecracks distributed among them - mainly about burial plots and daughters-in-law - run out well before the end of the first of three acts.
The main business of ''The 10th Man'' is to reassure the audience of the power of faith - a task Chayefsky undertook with the same sunny alacrity of ''The Sound of Music,'' which opened on Broadway the week after his play (and which, unlike his, at least took pains to acknowledge the shadow of the Holocaust). The evening's catalyst for spiritual renewal is Evelyn (Phoebe Cates), the 18-year-old granddaughter of one of the synagogue's elders.
Evelyn has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic with violent tendencies but just may be possessed by a demon - a dybbuk. In her fits, she has delusions that she is, variously, the whore of Kiev and Susan Hayward. Before modern psychiatry attempts its miracles, the men of the congregation want to give an old-fashioned exorcism a try.
For there to be a religious ceremony, however, the straitened synagogue must round up a minyan - or, to use this production's curiously Anglicized diction, a quorum of 10 men. The 10th man is almost literally blown through the door in the form of Arthur Brooks (Peter Friedman), an ill-shaven young lawyer reeling from a divorce, disenchantment with Communism and an excess of both alcohol and headshrinking. Arthur believes that ''life is utterly meaningless.'' Along with the congregation's new go-getting young Rabbi (Michael Mantell), he is the playwright's symbolic caricature of the ostensibly materialistic, Freud-obsessed, overassimilated American Jews who were fleeing orthodoxy for suburban country clubs, psychoanalysis and color television when ''The 10th Man'' was written.
You can be sure that Chayefsky, representing the interests of theater-party audiences of his time, will teach a lesson or two to the skeptical Arthur and all those other Reform Jews who ''sit around like Episcopalians, listening to organ music.'' But first he contrives a romantic subplot that reduces both young characters to cooing boulevard-comedy juveniles right out of the Kaufman and Hart plays that the temple's new rabbi hopes to produce for fund-raising purposes.
In its eagerness to pander, ''The 10th Man'' seems as cynical now as the television programming that Chayefsky would later attack in his screenplay for ''Network.'' Everyone on stage is lovable, and the trick ending is so contrived and sentimental that even the cast seems to disbelieve it. The dramaturgy is often as crude as the message. Characters recite their autobiographies at the drop of a prayer shawl. The phone-call traffic is heavy. There is no end to the spelling out of themes (''Here you have the decline of Orthodox Judaism graphically before your eyes'') and footnoting of background information (the unenlightened of 1959 are reassured that mental institutions offer ''the benefit of trained psychiatric personnel'').
Ulu Grosbard, the director, drains any spontaneity from the Old World alter-kakers' kibitzing by insisting on pauses after laugh lines (whether the laughs materialize or not) and by managing to make the most casual bits of stage business look overrehearsed and fake. The performances are so-so. Though her convulsions are no match for Linda Blair's, Ms. Cates does a fair vocal impersonation of Marlene Dietrich in her whore of Kiev mode; she is made to look preposterous when asked to shift abruptly from madwoman to chirpy ingenue. As her Jewish prince, the exemplary Mr. Friedman, late of ''The Heidi Chronicles,'' works up a frenzy of unmoving passion.
Among the other distinguished but wasted actors in the company is Joseph Wiseman as a long-bearded sonorous-voiced mystic who presides over an exorcism that only dietary laws forbid one from labeling pure ham.