There are two great devious imaginations at work in "Teibele and Her Demon," which opened at Arena Stage last night.
One belongs to Alchonon, the humble teacher's-helper who seduces the woman of his dreams by pretending to be a demon. The other belongs to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning, septuagenarian demon of 20th-century literature.
Whatever one thinks of liars in general, it is hard to resist a liar who comes equipped with dialogue by Singer.
By day, Alchonon is an unattractive, awkward lamebrain -- at any rate, that's how Teibele, who runs the local dry goods store, sees him. But when he appears at her bedside one night claiming to be Hurmizah, "ruler over darkness, rain, hail, thunder and wild bests" -- with no disguise beyond nakedness and the cover of night -- she swiftly surrenders to him.
"Do not try to resist!" he tells her. "Those who refuse to do my will I drag away beyond the Mountains of Darkness -- to Mount Sair into a wilderness where man's foot is unknown, where beasts don't tread, among adders and scorpions, until every bone of their body is ground to dust, and they are lost forever in the nether depths."
When Alchonon comes down with an all-too-mortal-sounding case of the sniffles, he explains that he has borrowed a human caracss so as not to terrify his love with his other-wordly self. It is not he that is shivering, but merely the body, says Alchonon matter-of-factly.
Unfortunately, this brilliant character and delightful situation come lodged in an excessively talky play and a rather predictable, one-note production. It is easy to understand the impulse to put Singer's fantastic combination of the humdrum, the erotic and the demonic on stage. But the present result makes it clear just how hard was the task that Singer, collaborator Eve Friedman, director Stephen Kanee and his cast set for themselves.
In Singer's fiction, amazing situations are established with enormous economy, leaving great gaps for the reader to fill with his imagination. On stage, the gaps are filed with flesh and scenery, and an essential quality of mystery is lost.
In a short story, for instance -- and specifically in the short story "Teibele and Her Demon" -- we do not inquire too closely just how Teibele does not penetrate her neighbor. Alchonon's disguise. The story, after all, is about the desire to be deceived -- the deceiver and the deceived are "loving partners," as Singer explains. But in the theater, we want to see the power of that desire conveyed in vivid theatrical form. Alchonon should have a genuinely demonic cast, and Teibele should seem to be swept away by her superstitious fancy.
Instead, as F. Murray Abraham and Laura Esterman play the parts, Alchonon and Teibele show little chemistry even by mortal standards. They certainly do not suggest a love capable of carrying both to their doom.
The story ended with Alchonon's death after too many cold-night visitations to Teibele.The play finds a second act by having Alchonon, the demon, terminate the affair and order Teibele to wed Alchonon, the man. Then we see the importance of fancy and self-deception in her love as she once again treats him with scorn.
Esterman and Abraham are earthy and funny in this phase of the play, which includes several marvelous comic scenes. If they could only lift themselves into a higher sphere of orbit for the first act, the entire show might be equally absorbing.
"Teibele and Her Demon" is only the second play in which Singer has had a hand, and it is Friedman's first professional production. But for all the play's current laggardliness, the authors demonstrate a shrewd stage sense. When Teibele and Alchonon are married, for instance, the bride is said to be so downcast about the ceremony that she neglects to invite any guests -- thus helpfully keeping the cast of this one-set show down to a nicely manageable seven.
TIEBLE AND HER DEMON by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eve Friedman. Directed by Stephen Kanee; sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley; lighting by Duane Schuler; original music by Richard Peaslee.
Witt. F. Murray Abraham, Laura Esterman, Barry Primus, Lee Lawson, Will Kuluva, Stephen Weyte and Ron Pertman.
At Arena State through December 2.