S. Ansky’s mystical Yiddish drama “The Dybbuk” is a play almost perfectly suited to Tony Kushner’s tastes and talents. With its evocative picture of a metaphysical world that shadows our own, and the spiritual price to be paid for avaricious self-interest, it has intriguing correspondences with Kushner’s own metaphysical epic, “Angels in America.” But with its stark, stylized new production and uneasy mixture of acting styles, Brian Kulick’s Public Theater staging of Kushner’s text lacks the cohesive mood that’s necessary to draw us into its fantastic world, where spirit and flesh commingle and clash across the blurred divide of death. It impresses on an intellectual level without engaging the emotions.
With the exception of some pronounced references to its 19th century setting and haunting allusions to the Holocaust, Kushner honors the original text by hewing closely to its cadenced dialogue and weird spirit. The story concerns the marriage of Leah (Marin Hinkle), the daughter of the rich Sender (Robert Dorfman), who’s broken off negotiations with three prospective husbands due to his displeasure with the financial terms.The poor Yeshiva student Khonen (Michael Stuhlbarg) is driven by a fanatical love for Leah that she secretly reciprocates. When Sender announces he’s finally settled on a husband for Leah, Khonen turns to dark spiritual forces to thwart the union. He pays with his life, falling dead in the synagogue only to return as a dybbuk, a spirit that takes possession of Leah’s body.
The desperate Sender brings Leah to Rabbi Azriel (Ron Leibman), a Hasidic sage, to drive out the dybbuk, only to find himself under judgment. It seems Khonen was the son of Nissin, a former colleague and friend to whose future son Sender had once promised his daughter. Although they’d lost contact — Sender never knew Nissin had a son — their love was ordained by greater powers, and Sender’s greedy search for a more remunerative match had blinded him to his daughter’s destined mate.
For his transgression he’s to give half his wealth to the poor. Indeed, with its accented allusions to Sender’s greed, the play’s central truth in this production is revealed to be the idea that even the smallest, most unintended immoral act can have profound social and even metaphysical consequences.
The strange flavor of the play defies easy description. Peopled by Hasidic scholars who discuss the Talmud and its mysteries with rabid conviction even as they pay equal attention to more earthly appetites, it’s full of musings on the nature of evil and its provenance, the journey of souls from sin to purification.
While the give-and-take among the Hasidic students and the peasant at Leah’s wedding is comically earthy, much of the dialogue — in both the original and Kusher’s eloquent adaptation — is stylized. Director Kulick’s production adds more layers of stylization, with Mimi Jordan Sheridan’s stark lighting and Mark Wendland’s spare, striking set of steep white walls and cloud-filled sky backdrop keeping the play on a more theoretical plane than might be desired. (The miniaturized shtetl synagogue, which owes a debt to Ian MacNeil’s memorable work on “An Inspector Calls,” performs contortions that are more distracting than illuminating.)
The acting is a bizarre mixture of styles that never succeeds in establishing a uniform tone. Leibman is impressive as Rabbi Azriel, delivering with human grit and conviction his anguished monologue of self-doubt and fiery imprecations to the dybbuk to depart Leah’s body.
The Messenger (Ed Shea), who acts as a sort of interpreter between the real and spiritual worlds, is played as much to the audience as to the characters, with a studied portentousness.
Obvious, too, is Hinkle’s familiar take on Leah’s possession: She snarls and bellows Linda Blair-like in a manner that’s hard to take seriously. Something subtler would be more in keeping with this cerebrally elegant production.
Stuhlbarg’s Khonen, meanwhile, is pallid and otherworldly, hardly burning up with a deathless passion. And as Sender, Dorfman himself seems possessed by the spirit of a bad actor in a Victorian melodrama; he gives an embarrassingly histrionic performance that borders on camp.
The Klezmatics’ original music is well integrated, adding some emotional texture that the production largely lacks. Indeed, though the passion between Leah and Khonen ultimately triumphs over the powers of the Rabbis — even over God’s will — the love story never succeeds in moving us emotionally.
But in this reversal of God’s will, the play finds the connection with Kushner’s references to the Holocaust. For if love can defeat God’s will, so it seems can evil, as Kushner’s allusions to future “mountain-piles of the dead” grimly attest.