Unless it’s fused with playable action, a debate turns a play into a lecture with costumes. So it goes with “The Quarrel,” a thoughtful treatise on Jewish faith that lacks theatrical spark. It’s no surprise this piece began as a short story, where the slightest premise can support an interesting battle of ideas. But in adapting Yiddish writer Chaim Grade’s original work, playwrights David Brandes and Joseph Telushkin show little sense for making his arguments dramatic.
The plot is more like a sketch: In Montreal in 1948, two old friends and Holocaust survivors unexpectedly meet in a park. When they were boys, Chaim (Sam Guncler) and Hersh (Reuven Russell) studied together, but while Hersh became a rabbi, Chaim abandoned his faith to pursue writing. Now reunited — and grieving Nazi atrocities — they clash over the value of faith in the aftermath of Hitler’s crimes.
Their arguments are interesting, if a bit schematic. Chaim champions humanity, insisting God should be blamed for the Holocaust, but Hersh declares only God can be trusted after humans built the camps.
As thought-provoking as they are, however, these conversations have no dramatic purpose. Neither man can gain or lose anything by arguing, so it’s hard to stay engaged.
Along with stakes, the script lacks physicality, rarely suggesting movement. Yet director Robert Walden has the thesps wander the stage in figure eights or arbitrarily cross while speaking, as though any random action were better than stillness.
Similarly, the scribes add some awkward spectacle, such as the lightning that strikes after Hersh spits an insult, but nothing feels organic.
The actors at least find the passion in their rhetoric. In his climactic monologues, Russell erupts like a religious leader, pounding key words in his arguments and shuddering with his convictions. He skates over subtler moments, but his bombast leaves a ringing echo.
Guncler uses a hammy Jewish accent but gains authenticity by taking the time to experience each new thought. His lines seem like they’re occurring to him for the first time.
The most elegant work comes from lighting designer John Burkland. In the opening scene, Chaim remembers his friendship with Hersh while the latter stands upstage, his back to the audience as he rocks in prayer. Burkland obscures Russell at the beginning, but as Guncler talks, he pulls the background actor into focus. The light evolves from dreamy colors into realistic tones, softly preparing us to enter the play. Those elegant shifts continue, giving the production some much-needed polish.