Theater Review : A Medieval 'Disputation' of Timely Issues

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Based on a historical incident, "The Disputation," at the Tiffany Theatre, deals with the Barcelona debate in 1263 between Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman and Catholic priest Pablo Christiani, a Jewish convert to Christianity.

Organized by the Catholic Church, the debate is intended to instruct the Jews in the error of their ways and spark mass conversions. King James of Aragon, currently in disfavor with the Pope, hopes to appease the church by sanctioning the disputation. However, being a sporting man, he's also hoping for a good fight.

For the Christians, the disputation is a chess game, a power play, an intellectual exercise. For the Jews, it's a matter of life and death. Similar disputations, like a recent one in France, have already resulted in Jewish blood baths. If the Jews lose and fail to convert, they will be hounded, harassed, possibly exterminated. If they win, an outraged Christian populace will sweep down upon them, with the same devastating result.

Not so in this case, insists James, who ensures the Jews free speech, a fair contest and protection against reprisals. Even with these unprecedented assurances, Rabbi Ben Nachman, who has been chosen to represent the Jews, would just as soon forgo the honor. He fears the outcome, rightly so. Resolving to go down fighting, Nachman triumphs over his Christian antagonists, a Pyrrhic victory, but a sweet one nonetheless.

Hyam Maccoby's play arose from his 1982 book "Judaism on Trial," an account of the medieval disputations between Christian and Jewish scholars that contained the first definitive translation of the Barcelona debate. A noted scholar himself, Maccoby has written a terse, assured drama that only occasionally falls into the dusty cadences of the university lecture hall.

Asaad Kelada directs with intellectual assurance, yet his staging is oddly static. Kelada favors rigidly composed groupings somewhat reminiscent of tableaux vivants , freezing his performers in pretty pictures that make us all too aware of the directorial process at work. Russell Pyle's stark yet handsome set and moody lighting provide an effective backdrop for Kelada's snapshots.

Among the formidable cast of seasoned stage veterans, Jacob Witkin is particularly fine as James, a lusty ruler who is more pagan than pious. Also exceptional is Neil Hunt as the quietly inexorable Dominican leader whose outward benevolence masks a chilling determination.

Bernard Kates, who plays the vital central role of Nachman, is competent, but lacks the fire and authority that would spark the play as a whole. Perhaps opening-night jitters will smooth out into a more fortunate performance down the line. Robert Desiderio plays Catholic priest Pablo Christiani.

This play is not perfect, but it is important. Between the interstices of Maccoby's medieval drama, one can hear dismayingly modern murmurings of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Maccoby amplifies the whispers into a shouted warning.

* "The Disputation," Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 28. $25. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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