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Minor Plays from Major Writers

Chayefsky, Stoppard, and Pinter dramas brighten three New York stages. THEATER: REVIEWS

By John BeaufortSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1989


THE TENTH MAN Play by Paddy Chayefsky. Directed by Ulu Grosbard. Revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. THE humor and humanity, the affectionate delight in offbeat characters that informed Paddy Chayefsky's ``The Tenth Man'' have been appreciatively captured by the new Lincoln Center theater production.

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In the play's first Broadway revival since its successful 1959 debut, director Ulu Grosbard and his colleagues have responded to the spectrum of emotional colors caught in this vignette of Jewish-American life as it passes in the shabby converted store that serves as a small Long Island synagogue.

In its original form, ``The Tenth Man'' employed a brief prologue to explain that a ``dybbuk'' is a demon that possesses the body of a live human being, and a ``minyon'' is a quorum of 10 Jewish men over the age of 13, which is necessary for just about anything connected with Jewish religion.

Even without the prologue, the situation becomes immediately apparent as the harried Sexton (played by Sidney Armus) struggles to assemble a quorum for the service about to take place. Exchanging jokes and anecdotes, arguing the merits of their chosen cemeteries, airing their folk wisdom and foolishness, the elderly males gather - even while Chayefsky is laying the groundwork for plot developments to come.

Among the arrivals are Foreman (Alan Manson), bringing his 18-year-old schizophrenic granddaughter, Evelyn (Phoebe Cates), whom he apparently hopes to save from being re-institutionalized. The Sexton at last collars his ``tenth man,'' passerby Arthur Brooks (Peter Friedman), who turns out to be a bitter atheist, possessed with his own demons and a psychiatrist on call.

``The Tenth Man'' proceeds in its leisurely way, as much concerned with the quirks of old codgers as with the surprise exorcism the author has in store. Digressions are all part of the itinerary, and getting there proves more than half the pleasure of the play.

Shawls are donned for the prayers and responsive readings, which the author interrupts to accommodate plot demands. In the course of the interruptions, the frequently lucid Evelyn declares her love for an alarmed Arthur.

Miss Cates and Mr. Friedman lend their credibility as players to the odd couple of Mr. Chayefsky's romantic fantasy. Otherwise, the acting honors belong to the oldsters. Joseph Wiseman achieves some seraphic moments as Hirschman, the resident Cabalist. The performance provides a field day for accomplished character actors like Jack Weston as a self-proclaimed adulterer, Bob Dishy as the congregation's skeptic, Ron Rifkin as the conciliatory Alper, and Michael Mantell as a rabbi for his pop-religious times. They are among the more prominent of the players who populate the picturesquely shabby premises designed by Santo Loquasto, with lighting be Dennis Parichy to serve the shifting moods, and costumes by Jane Greenwood.

ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE Play by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Tim Luscombe. Starring Harold Gould, John McMartin, Paxton Whitehead, Michael Cumpsty, Jim Fyfe, Michael Winther, Stephanie Roth. At the Helen Hayes Theatre.

TWO elderly artists are arguing over who caused the death of their late colleague, as the curtain rises on Tom Stoppard's tragicomedy. Did Donner (John McMartin) fall? Or was he somehow pushed down the stairs leading to the fancifully cluttered attic studio he shared with Beauchamp (Harold Gould) and Martello (Paxton Whitehead)?

While the question looms large, Beauchamp and Martello - and playwright Stoppard - have a number of other things on their minds. All of which are stimulatingly explored in the eccentric course of the play's 11 scenes. (The title is adapted from Marcel Duchamps's 1912 Futurist painting ``Nude Descending a Staircase.'')

``Artist Descending a Staircase'' begins in 1972, when it started life as a radio play, and reaches back to 1914 as it traces the formulation of a three-way friendship and the romantic complications that marred its progress. In keeping with the milieu, there is plenty of comical art-world name-dropping and much amusing talk of artistic fads and trends. According to Donner, ``Inspiration without skill gives us modern art.'' He and Martello observe that sugar sculpture ``will give Cubism a new lease on life.''