Minor Plays from Major Writers

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.''

Mr. Stoppard can digress on occasion for an ironic historical footnote. In Scene 6 (1914), the trio's younger, confidant avant-gardist counterparts (played by Michael Cumpsty, Jim Fyfe, Michael Winther) are encountered in the course of a European walking tour. Even with the sight of soldiery and the sound of crashing shells, Martello confidently quotes his uncle, a member of the British War Office: ``There will be no war for the very good reason that His Majesty's government is not ready to go to war, and it will be at least six months before we are ready to beat the French.''

The romantic tensions at the center of the play focus on Sophie (Stephanie Roth), a beautiful woman whose sight impairment and ultimate blindness lead to tragic consequences. But not before the mercurial Stoppard has written two charming scenes for Sophie and the admiring young artists.

Even with the playwright's helpful diagrammatic scene division in the Playbill, one must be alert to follow the changes of time and place in this 90-minute, intermissionless work. All the more welcome is the clarifying performance staged by Tim Luscombe, who directed the London productions.

If the young artists of the early decades seem at times to blend, their aging counterparts are sharply and wittily distinguished in the performances by Gould, Whitehead, and McMartin. The touching charm with which Miss Roth invests Sophie's initial scenes is matched by the heart-rending pathos with which she expresses the heroine's ultimate anguish.

``Artist Descending a Staircase'' demands a physical production to match the play's idiosyncracies. The demands have been strikingly fulfilled in Tony Straiges's settings (with their bold, between-scenes abstractions), Tharon Musser's lighting, and Kevin Malpass's electronic score and sound effects (including Beauchamp's intrusive tape recorder). Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes follow the fashions of their times. MOUNTAIN LANGUAGE and THE BIRTHDAY PARTY Two plays by Harold Pinter. Directed by Carey Perloff. At the Classic Stage Company Theatre through Dec. 23.

THE Classic Stage Company has twinned ``Mountain Language,'' a new, 20-minute Harold Pinter Play, with ``The Birthday Party,'' a 1958 example of Pinter's ``comedy of menace.'' The latest work assembles a courageous group of women who come to visit their menfolk at a police-state prison on a winter day. It appears that the men have been locked up for the political crime of clinging to the ``mountain language'' proscribed by the dictatorship.

The harsh little drama pits the visitors (notably Jean Stapleton and Wendy Makkena) against two brutish guards (Miguel Perez and Thomas Delling). At last permitted to speak in her ``mountain language,'' the older woman (Miss Stapleton) finds it impossible to communicate with her son (Peter Riegert). The small but intense work is both harrowing and intensely moving in the performance staged by Carey Perloff.

``The Birthday Party'' is a Pinteresquely sardonic examination of a nightmare world just beneath the surface of a banal domestic situation. Petey (Bill Moor), who scans the daily tabloid over the breakfast of cornflakes and fried bread prepared by his ditsy wife, Meg (Miss Stapleton), realizes too late that the stuff of horror headlines has been taking place under the roof of their modest seaside boarding house.

Menace materializes in the persons of two mysterious strangers, the sadistic Goldberg (Mr. Riegert) and the bullying McCann (Richard Riehle), who have come seeking Stanley (David Strathairn), Petey and Meg's moody boarder. Goldberg and McCann apparently have been assigned to do a ``job'' on Stanley for his betrayal of some unspecified cause.

The birthday party to honor Stanley (who insists it isn't his birthday) is an increasingly drunken affair culminating in a bizarre game of blindman's buff. Tensions multiply as the dark violence that makes black headlines becomes increasingly inevitable. On the morning after, Petey begins sensing Stanley's peril. But it is too late.

``The Birthday Party'' is remarkably well acted by the versatile Miss Stapleton and her colleagues, including Miss Makkena as a susceptible young guest whom Goldberg seduces.

From Name Dramatists

THE TENTH MAN

Revival of the 1959 play, by the late Paddy Chayefsky

ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE

Play by Tom Stoppard

MOUNTAIN LANGUAGE and THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

Two plays by Harold Pinter

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