×

A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds

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."

With:
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg (Khonen), David Lipman (First Batlon), Stuart Zagnit (Second Batlon), Umit Celebi (Third Batlon), Ed Shea (the Messenger), Joshua Mostel (Mayer), Joan Copeland (Channa-Esther), Stephen Kunken (Henekh), Marin Hinkle (Leah), Lola Pashalinski (Fradde), Eve Michelson (Gitl), Robert Dorfman (Sender), Christopher McCann (Beggar), Joyce Chittick (Poor Woman), Nina Goldman (Poor Woman With Baby), Marcell Rosenblatt (Very Poor Old Woman), Daniel Wright (Holy Bridegroom), Bernie Passeltiner (Rabbi Mendl), Hillel Meltzer (Menashe), Rabbi Azriel (Ron Leibman).

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.

A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds

Joseph Papp Public Theater's Newman Theater, New York; 299 seats; $40

Production: A Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a play in four acts (one intermission) by S. Ansky, translated by Joachim Neugroschel and adapted by Tony Kushner. Directed by Brian Kulick. Set, Mark Wendland.

Creative: Costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sheridan; sound, Tom Morse; music, the Klezmatics; choreography, Naomi Goldberg; production stage manager, Erica Schwartz. Opened Nov. 16, 1997. Reviewed Nov. 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg (Khonen), David Lipman (First Batlon), Stuart Zagnit (Second Batlon), Umit Celebi (Third Batlon), Ed Shea (the Messenger), Joshua Mostel (Mayer), Joan Copeland (Channa-Esther), Stephen Kunken (Henekh), Marin Hinkle (Leah), Lola Pashalinski (Fradde), Eve Michelson (Gitl), Robert Dorfman (Sender), Christopher McCann (Beggar), Joyce Chittick (Poor Woman), Nina Goldman (Poor Woman With Baby), Marcell Rosenblatt (Very Poor Old Woman), Daniel Wright (Holy Bridegroom), Bernie Passeltiner (Rabbi Mendl), Hillel Meltzer (Menashe), Rabbi Azriel (Ron Leibman).

More Legit

  • The Kilroys The List

    Listen: New List, New Leaders as the Kilroys Push for Parity

    The collective of writers and producers known as the Kilroys has been pushing for gender parity in the theater for five years now. With the launch last week of the latest edition of the List — the group’s annual round-up (inspired by Hollywood’s Black List) of plays by women, trans and non-binary writers — members [...]

  • Annette Bening

    Star-Studded Cast to Perform Live Reading of the Mueller Report

    Haven’t perused the Mueller report yet? A star-studded cast, including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, and John Lithgow, can read it to you. For one night only on Monday, June 24, stars will perform a live reading of passages from the Mueller report for “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” Robert Schenkkan’s [...]

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. MWM Live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content