Although "Teibele and Her Demon" stretches an erotic fable a trifle thin, it is nevertheless a lovely piece of theater. Based by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eve Friedman on one of Singer's tales, it brings a rare kind of theatrical magic to Broadway, where it opened last night at the Atkinson.
Set in a Polish village, a Jewish shtetl, in the 1880s, it is the story of a lovelorn young woman, Teibele, operator of a drygoods store, whose husband has left her and disappeared after an unconsummated marriage. Under Jewish law, she cannot remarry until her spouse has been declared dead.
He never is, except by a ruse in a late development. But in the meantime she becomes sexually enslaved by the nighttime materializations of a "demon." This fellow, a rapturous spellbinder, is actually the woebegone and ragged Alchonon, an unemployed village tutor despised by Teibele. A Peeping Tom, he has overheard her yearnings and devised this plan to seduce her in the dark. Needless to say, he comes to adore her.
It is a sad, funny and shimmering play that takes many turns before reaching its touching conclusion, and I suppose you should be warned that unless you believe in fairy tales, its beauty may elude you. But then, this is one fairy tale you'll find hard to resist.
F. Murray Abraham is giving an inspired performance as the demon-scholar, a nebbish by day and a love god, or devil, by night. The occasion is his, though Laura Esterman is an appealing Teibele, and those around her in the small cast - Lee Lawson as a young widow, Barry Primus as Alchonon's best friend, an amorous and happy-go-lucky peddler, and Stefan Schnabel as the village rabbi who marries Alchonon to Teibele - are also commendable.
Everything about the production, which originated two summers ago at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is of a high order. Stephen Kanee, the director, has emphasized the legendary quality of this fluid, episodic creation in the choreographic attitudes, movements, arrivals and departures of the characters. Desmond Heeley, who is also responsible for the muted costumes, has designed a grandly atmospheric open setting dominated by the suggestion of a fancifully steep shingled roof. Duane Schuler's lighting enhances the brooding, mysterious nature of the piece at every turn. Richard Peaslee's incidental music is also richly supportive.
This is unusual theater, funny and moving and full of wonder.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Teibele and Her Demon is not your common or garden play. Described by its authors, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eve Friedman, as "a fable," it opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night. At first I was nonplussed by its seemingly eccentric style, then I slowly became a little plussed, then more and more plussed, and, right at the end, I was prepared to admit that this fable was fabulous.
The style and the story are certainly remote from an America approaching the '80s, although there will doubtless be many families, with strong Jewish roots, to whom such a fable will echo with the familiarity of traditions past and stories half-remembered. Singer and Miss Friedman have created a dramatic new world out of the old country.
The fable is set in Frampol, a Jewish village in Poland. The time is about 100 years ago. Teibele is a woman apparently deserted by her husband, who has disappeared. Under the religious law she cannot remarry, even though she is young and very attractive.
Alchonon, shabby, vague, a Talmudic scholar obsessed with Jewish mysticism and the Kaballah, confides to his more earthy friend Menasha that he loves Teibele. Better still, he devises an incredible and audacious scheme to win her. Knowing of her fascination for biblical demons, and even demons more mysterious and frightening, one night Alchonon enters Teibele's house and finds her in bed.
He persuades her - in a beautifully funny passage - that he is a demon, and must have his way with her. Thus he seduces the patient, cautious but passionate Teibele.
As this diabolical relationship continues, one soon thinks that Teibele must have some idea of the true nature of her twice-weekly visitor. But no: strictly brought up in the ways of mysticism, this young woman on the verge of the century yet still in the past immemorial, believes in her demon.
This is fine, except that Alchonon wants to marry Teibele - settle down and have a family. A domesticated demon would be too much for even guileless Teibele to accept, so in his demon's shape he says a regretful goodbye to his love, prophesies that Menasha will arrive with evidence of her husband's death in Minsk, and tells her that it is her unalterable destiny to marry Alchonon. Exit demon hotly pursued by new husband.
It wouldn't be fair to tell you what happens. But let me assure you that what does happen lifts the story into a legend, and suddenly, although most without us noticing it, the authors are talking about all of us instead of strange people in a far-off country at a far-distant time. The shape of the fable becomes apparent, and the style loses its naivete and takes on the tone of common humanity.
Faults? Well, certainly the play, and its staging, stresses too much the old theatrical Jewish/Yiddish cliches - at times it seems rather like A Fiddler on the Roof without fiddles. And the pace is slow - deliberately so, but perhaps too slow for many contemporary theatergoers, who might dismiss its charms as childish before they can be seduced by its childlike simplicity. Finally many people over-accustomed to sex on stage, may fail to recognize the headier, subtler whiff of true eroticism.
Enough of them. Stephen Kanee's direction - at least when it sticks to its point - achieves a grave, almost sculptural style, Desmond Heeley's flamboyantly imaginative setting and traditional costumes, and Duane Schuler's chiaroscuro lighting, all give the production a compelling sense of difference. A difference that is totally appropriate to the theatrical occasion.
The performances are joyous. Laura Esterman plays Teibele with a schizophrenic sensuality and sensitive human awareness. Superstitious and lost in myth as Teibele is, one's only question is whether Miss Esterman, rich with common sense and sly with humor, could be quite so easily taken in. Ah, but you see, this is a fable.
F. Murray Abraham as the poor scholar who would a demon be, manages his transfiguartion with consummate skill and is very funny and very touching. Two other sweetly turned performances come from Barry Primus as Menasha and Lee Lawson as Teibele's best friend. Stefan Schnabel is the authoritarian rabbi.
Funny, erotic, delightful, different and touching, Teibele and Her Demon is a play worth savoring and relishing. Its flavor will stay with you long after more conventional dramatic sweetmeats have been masticated and forgotten.
I especially liked the idea of a demon with a head cold. There he is, straight from the fiery nether regions, stripped to the waist in anticipation of a night's amorous revelry and shivering like crazy. Shivering nothing. He's sneezing so violently that the woman who's awaiting him in bed must swallow her impatience and bless him with a "Gesundheit!" Not even a visitor from Hell can keep his teeth from chattering insanely on a cold winter's night in the folk-tale village of Frampol.
Not that this particular visitor - played amusingly and sometimes vehemently by that fine actor F. Murray Abraham - is really from Hell. He's simply pretending to be. In "Teibele and Her Demon," which Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eve Friedman have adapted from one of Mr. Singer's short stories, it is essential that the poor fellow do a great deal of pretending.
He's passionately enamored of Teibele, a woman he's glimpsed about town and a woman unavailable. She is, as the Playbill's glossary at the Brooks Atkinson informs us, an "aguna," a deserted wife who can neither divorce nor remarry until proof of her runaway husband's death is offered. In her solitude, Teibele has immersed herself in tracts on demonology. Because she feels her sexual deprivation so keenly, one notion in particular appeals to her: If a demon should appear and attempt to seduce a woman, there is absolutely nothing his victim can do to prevent him. That sounds promising.
And so, when Mr. Abraham slips under her roof one late evening - the roof is made of bark and shaped like an old felt hat - she is altogether ready for him. A shade apprehensive, perhaps, because of his background. But once he has recounted his sexual adventures with everyone before, after and including the Queen of Sheba ("They were all afraid, right down through history"), she becomes wonderfully cooperative.
Laura Esterman plays her with a good bit of honest abandon, and, by the time her lover is due for a second encounter, she's become an absolute dervish at getting rid of her clothes in a hurry. Unhappily, this is the occasion on which our friend catches cold, though he still confides in us that he's having the best winter of his life - if only he lives through it.
Mr. Abraham and Miss Esterman have some amusing, some vigorously sensual, and - eventually - some deeply troubled scenes together, managing many of them well. There is, for instance, a teasing psychological struggle that begins to stir in the would-be demon: At a certain point in the authors' tricky maneuverings, he begins to become jealous of himself. A disturbing, insoluble problem, and the actor lets the first traces of it ripple across his face with considerable skill. As the lovers' relationship becomes troubled, though, so does the play.
It works - or, really, doesn't quite work - this way. Having firmly established himself as the glory of Teibele's life, her seducer decides it is time to make an honest man of himself. He first arranges false evidence to say that Teibele's husband has died and she is free to marry. He then reports, as demon, that he has been assigned permanent guard duty in Gehenna ("Seven nights a week?" gapes his mistress, understandably stunned). Since he can no longer visit her, he commands her to marry her local admirer, Alchonon. Alchonon will care for her most ardently. Alchonon is, of course, himself.
It is at this point - with comic fragments still flying loosely about - that the illusionistic structure of the piece comes apart. Teibele flies into instant rage. She knows Alchonon, knows him well; so far as she's concerned, he's "a lamebrain, an outcast, a misfit." She is saying these things, please keep in mind, to Alchonon, spitting imprecations into his familiar face. Even as we are half-smiling at the poor fellow's discomfiture in the situation, we're left with a thumping, dramatically destructive, question. Why, in heaven's name (oops, wrong territory), hasn't she recognized him before? There has been no makeup, no light change, no glaze in the lady's eyes, to disguise the man she detests.
Strictly speaking, the authors have ducked the issue. During the evening's opening scenes, the two principals are never seen together; we have no real sense that they're acquainted. As a result, we have no difficulty in accepting, and sometimes enjoying, Alchonon's demonic appearances. But at this midway juncture, we're confused, and we do feel cheated.
Have the authors no way out of their now-she-knows-him-now-she-doesn't dilemma? A possible answer is hinted at. Teibele may have become the kind of woman who can only love demonically - perhaps not so rare a species - and, all along, she's simply seen what she wanted to see. But we haven't been told that early enough, it hasn't been performed that way, and the matter is inadequately touched upon as the play gropes toward its final sequences.
We're doubters by this time, and keep asking new questions. Why, given her distaste, does Teibele marry Alchonon so quickly? Married to him, why doesn't she just draw on the sexual talents he's known to possess? Why, for that matter, must a rabbi persuade Alchonon to revert to his original lie in order to allow the dying Teibele to expire in peace?
Instead of being charmed by the steadily compounded sleight-of-hand, we've come to watch it guardedly, all too aware of how unlikely its improvised twists and turns are. Along with credence, our pleasure gradually evaporates. The difficulty, obviously, is at root a specifically theatrical one. One of Mr. Singer's boldest talents, so long as he is writing to be read rather than seen and heard, is his knack for making the unlikely come to pass easily, matter-of-factly, as naturally as a snowfall.
Here, on an open stage filled with dimensional, identifiable people, the author's special brand of playfulness runs into roadblocks. What was freely imagined becomes tangible, literal, heavy with its own weight. And, alas, subject to the bothersome laws of human logic.
"Teibele," imported from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is a disappointment, then. I still like the notion of a devil who can't keep warm.