Jewish congregants at a synagogue in Mineola, NY attempt to obtain a minyan (quorum of 10) in order to proceed with morning services. One of the congregants arrives with his granddaughter whom he declares is possessed by a dybbuk. This sets in motion a story about the personal demons held within us. This is The Tenth Man and it is currently playing at B’Nai Israel Living History Synagogue under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.
I’m not super familiar with the works of Paddy Chayefsky, but based off this play and his script for Altered States, I can conclude that he does have a gift for human weaknesses and seems to enjoy wrapping it up in a bit of the supernatural to hammer home the point that we are frail, but that fixing those frailties is possible. Once the story really launches with the arrival of David Foreman and his granddaughter, Evelyn, we begin to dip into the weaknesses of these characters.
Many of them have a dybbuk of their own. One’s dybukk is his atheism. Another is the guilt of being on the outs with his father for leaving the rabbinical life. Another is a suicidal alcoholic. Still another is holding on to the old ways. The story’s power is how these individuals come together to deal with or even ignore/overlook these dybbuks.
Murphy Scott Wulfgar provides some truly excellent direction with the piece and his blocking and staging were of abnormally high quality, possibly some of the best I’ve ever seen. Wulfgar uses two performance sites: the synagogue’s basement and its sanctuary. He and his actors make full use of the space with a truly immersive performance as his actors use every nook and cranny, forcing the audience to constantly shift focus to follow the entire story. The blocking is so natural and extemporaneous that it feels like actors chose their movements in the moment as opposed to prearranging it. Wulfgar also coached his thespians to performances ranging from solid to superlative.
This is a true ensemble piece where everyone gets a moment to shine. Some of the sterling performances come from Jack Zerbe whose extreme piousness reflects his crushing guilt at being on the outs with his father when he died. David Sindelar shows some subtle symptoms of suffering from the same schizophrenia with which his granddaughter has been diagnosed. Murphy Scott Wulfgar provides humor as the faithless atheist who goes through the motions of the faith out of habit and not having anything better to do. Jason Levering shines as the traditionalist lamenting the loss of the old ways and the increasing faithlessness of this generation.
But this show’s core story lies on the shoulders of Katt Walsh and Christopher Scott who provide a pair of masterful performances.
Katt Walsh is extraordinary as Evelyn Foreman. Walsh’s Foreman is a deeply disturbed individual. Whether from possession or illness will be for you to decide. Walsh has some of the most beautiful body language and facial expressions that I’ve seen in a performer and says more with a look or gesture than some can with multi-page monologues. On the turn of a dime they can transition from complete catatonia to shocking violence and then flip to gentleness such as lovingly removing the coat of Evelyn’s grandfather. Walsh has a firm grip on dialects and easily transitions from the Russian dialect of Evelyn’s dybbuk to Evelyn’s own New Yorker voice.
Christopher Scott gives his best performance to date with a highly nuanced, multilayered take on Arthur Brooks. Scott’s Brooks is an extremely despondent person. This is a man battling real demons. He feels abandoned by everyone, driving him to the bottle and the brink of suicide. When he encounters the plight of Evelyn, Scott just bleeds compassion and finally takes that sincere and deep dive into himself where he finds a strength thought long lost.
Thomas Rowe has provided some accurate costumes reflecting the faith and practices of Hasidic Judaism with suits, scarves, and yarmulkes. Murphy Scott Wulfgar supplied some eerie sounds for the more supernatural moments of the show.
Act I was hampered a bit by the basement’s black box nature. Those walls and bodies really suck up sound so the actors have to really project so all of the dialogue can be heard. The sanctuary is a perfect performance venue and voices rang out clear as bells in Act II.
This is an incredibly reflective tale and nearly all of these characters have something to exorcise. It’s just a matter of deciding what and who gets left behind.
The Tenth Man runs at B’Nai Israel Livng History Synagogue through May 7. Showtimes are Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm. There are no Friday night shows. Tickets cost $35 and can be obtained by calling 402-502-4910. B’Nai Israel Living History Synagogue is located at 618 Mynster St in Council Bluffs, IA.