VALLEY WEEKEND : CENTERPIECE : Dialogue for All Times : Scholar Hopes Play Triggers Talks Between Christians and Jews

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of six volumes of Heinrich Graetz's "History of the Jews," teen-ager Hyam Maccoby latched onto one episode. Not the parting of the Red Sea. Not the battle between David and Goliath. No, Maccoby was completely taken with the Barcelona Disputation of 1263.

"When I first read it, I must have been 16. And I thought, what a fantastic play this would make," says Maccoby, now 71, who grew up to be a respected--and often controversial--religious scholar.

He's written 10 books dissecting the roots of anti-Semitism, challenging nearly every tenant of Christianity in the process. After 50-some years, Maccoby got around to rendering his play "The Disputation," which will be presented starting tonight at the University of Judaism. The work is, not surprisingly, theologically loaded.

Given, the medieval disputations weren't exactly a high point in Judeo-Christian relations. In the 5th Century, Saint Augustine forbade the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity--a frustration to future Catholics, who believed the conversion of all Jews was a precursor to the second coming of Christ.

So medieval church leaders in Western Europe staged more than 20 disputations--formal debates designed to persuade Jews to convert. Of course, anything the Jews might say in defense of their faith constituted blasphemy. The result was a browbeating, says Maccoby, that usually culminated with a choice between conversion or death.

Not so in 1263. King James of Aragon--not a very good Catholic himself--was coerced into hosting one of these disputations. The king had both sympathy for Jews and a sense of fair play, so he guaranteed the safety of the rabbi drafted for the disputation, Moses Ben Nachman.

That promise made all the difference, says Maccoby, who translated both the Jewish and Catholic transcripts of the weeklong proceedings for his 1982 book, "Judaism on Trial." Afterward, Maccoby started work on a teleplay version, which was eventually produced for Channel 4 in England.

A videotape of the Channel 4 production, which featured Christopher Lee and a host of Royal Shakespeare Company actors, made its way from the hands of a British businessman to Roland Franklin, who then sent it to his son Richard in Los Angeles. Richard Franklin had in the last few years abandoned a career in investment banking to pursue an entertainment management career.

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What Franklin saw on that videotape affected him profoundly. "It synthesized for me in one hour an entire world view that made tremendous sense," Franklin says. Though he had never produced a play, he picked up the phone and called London, where Maccoby teaches at Leo Baeck College. "Have you ever thought about making 'The Disputation' a stage play?" he asked.

Indeed, Maccoby had.

Maccoby and Franklin began the process of expanding the 50-minute script into a two-hour stage play. In July, 1994, they mounted an Equity-waiver production at the 99-seat Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood. It sold out, performance after performance.

Its five-week run was extended three weeks, until it bumped into the next scheduled production. The response was unlike anything Franklin had expected. Some people came to see the show five times.

As soon as the play closed, the University of Judaism negotiated with Franklin for another run this month in its 500-seat Gindi Auditorium. This second run--already extended by one week after nearly selling out the first eight shows--gave Maccoby and Franklin a chance to further develop the play with hopes of taking it to New York next spring. In rewrites, Maccoby has raised the tension in the second act, putting more at stake for the debating Ben Nachman.

Still, when you strip it down, "The Disputation" remains a serious examination of the differences between two religions. That may seem pedantic to some, but for Franklin and Maccoby, it is at the heart of social issues more contemporary than their 13th-Century setting.

Beliefs, such as whether salvation is determined by faith or behavior, affect the way people lead their lives, Franklin says.

"It very often takes a writer or a playwright to put into a popular form something that's esoteric to the layman--like Carl Sagan making astronomy understandable," says Franklin. "The gamble for us is, can we make this exciting on stage? We can't get away from what this play is about: issues."

For director Robert Robinson, maintaining a human element in a play so ideologically focused has been the biggest challenge. "I take my cue from George Bernard Shaw. When you look at his plays, they are all about ideas and political and social theories," Robinson says. "The best way to handle that is to gather with the actors and find the humanity behind the characters. Ideas don't spring out of thin air; they come out of people."

History--embellished by Maccoby--has given the actors interesting characters to develop. King James (Neil Vipond) struggles with his innate paganism and Christian-imposed guilt, adding a good dose of humor. Ben Nachman (Alexander Zale), while shrewd and brave, is also arrogant. Pablo Christiani (Jim Connors), who debates the rabbi, is himself a converted Jew whose family was massacred by Christians in France.

Franklin makes no secret of his hope that Equity production in a larger theater will give movie-industry types a sense of the play's audience appeal. But Franklin also knows what Hollywood tends to think of religious subject matter.

"They'll say it's not commercial," he says. "It's a movie that should probably be made by the British, probably shot in Spain, and would probably win all the awards."

But his reason for wanting a film version isn't that he'd like to segue into film producing. He wants to gain the largest possible audience for a story with strong messages about tolerance and justice.

Similarly, Maccoby hopes that the story can serve as a starting point for honest discussions between modern Christians and Jews. That desire resonates throughout the play, as in a scene in which Ben Nachman tells a king's adviser: "I feel that this is a historic occasion. This is the only time in a very long age that there has been a frank meeting between Jews and Christians. Who knows when such an occasion may occur again?"

It should occur again now, says Maccoby, when Jews and Christians are on the best terms they have been in centuries. "When people are willing to listen," he says, "that's the time to talk to them."

DETAILS

* WHAT: "The Disputation."

* WHERE: Gindi Auditorium, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive.

* WHEN: Today through Nov. 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays; 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.

* HOW MUCH: $23 and $28.

* CALL: (310) 476-9777, Ext. 201.

* FYI: Also the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., 8 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $28. Call (213) 388-2401.

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