Atantalizing snatch of “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof” is heard at the start of “The Eleventh Commandment,” and it’s about the only beautiful music offered up all night. Shrill, variably acted and lamely facetious when it ought to be hilarious and devastating in turn, comedian David Schneider’s first play has the feeling of a therapy session folded into an audience-pleasing Off Broadway comedy of a particularly retrograde sort. It’s London’s own “Beau Jest, ” given a hipster’s veneer.
While one can already imagine the TV-movie — Anne Bancroft is a natural to play the mother — such thoughts only prove the existence of an implicit twelfth commandment: When it comes to writing what you know, self-knowledge is not always enough.
The crux of the play is a painful one: the irretrievable damage done to a north London Jewish family when 30-year-old son Daniel (David Schneider) becomes serious about a shiksa, TV newswoman Christina (Tracey Lynch). While dad (Jeffrey Segal) sits hunched over his food at the dinner table, mom (Sheila Steafel) goes on the Jewish Mother warpath. A Holocaust survivor herself, she demands to know how her own son could “finish off what Hitler started” by refusing to propagate a race whose threatened extinction is inseparable from its history.
Thickening the brew is Tracey’s Ulster background. As a child of that wartorn province, Tracey knows a fair amount about religious conflict and has little patience for Daniel’s obeisance to his mother when such divisive thinking has already marred Tracey’s past. In the end, Daniel — much, one gathers, like the actor-author in real life — has to make a choice, even as he is left yearning for an ennobling tragedy of his own that might match his mother’s suffering. Only then, he argues, would he be able to arrive for the weekly Sabbath meal bearing an adequate cudgel of guilt.
Its painful origins aside, the play is essentially a comic vaudeville staged on a clever Lez Brotherston set whose dominant props are mom’s piles of Tupperware. The narrative is regularly interrupted by the increasingly daft appearance of two undercover detectives of Jewish affairs (James Clyde and Nicholas Ball), one of whom meets a fateful end in the flight path of an airborne poodle. A slide show pairs up Daniel with famous Jews (from Streisand to England’s own Maureen Lipman and Edwina Currie), while Daniel later does a Bogart impression out of nowhere. Nuttiest of all are the biblical pastiches, with Jeffrey Segal ripely underplaying both Abraham and Moses, who gets pressed into service as Daniel’s lawyer. His full name? “Just Moses.”
All of this might be fun as an Oxbridge end-of-term jape. At the Hampstead, the absence of real wit — a good “crispy bacon” joke notwithstanding — is as evident as the reliance on numerous devices that Woody Allen, to cite the most obvious equivalent, has done more often, and better — in the “Oedipus Wrecks” portion of “New York Stories,” to start with. Matthew Lloyd’s direction, too, shortchanges what bite exists. Steafel’s Mum is particularly underpowered in what would seem a foolproof role, while Schneider, as an actor, doesn’t possess the charm to smooth over an evening of authorial catharsis.
Far the most appealing is Segal’s tripling of parts as Dad, Moses, and a hilariously avuncular Abraham, whose bequest to mankind over time, we’re told, has included short-sightedness and a poor facility for loft insulation. On both points I can only add, touche.