Anyone feeling residual guilt over Sunday school lessons skipped long ago might consider the makeup class masquerading as a play these days at Theater J. But only if the guilt is really, really, really getting to you.
Otherwise, you'd be advised not to subject yourself to "The Disputation," a gassy-stuffy costume drama in which solemn characters debate the status of the Messiah and whether Jews have the right to practice their religion. The play was written by Hyam Maccoby, a British professor who died last year, and his creaky approach to illustrating history suggests a well-informed amateur playwright at sea in any forum outside academia.
Theater J's production, in which director Nick Olcott stolidly moves assorted kings, priests and rabbis on and off the stage like so much heavy furniture, has one unlikely thing going for it: the presence of Theodore Bikel, the actor-entertainer. He portrays a rabbi in the Barcelona of 1263 who's called on to defend his people against a fired-up Catholic Church just spoiling to begin the forced baptisms of the Jewish population. Bikel, a hale and handsome octogenarian, clearly relishes the role; he's played it before, in a staging of "The Disputation" at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.
Bikel's dramatic heft and renown -- he was a notable Tevye on Broadway and originated the role of Capt. von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" -- lend the play a significance it doesn't earn on its own. Olcott surrounds Bikel with an impressive array of local talent, including Edward Gero, Naomi Jacobson and Andrew Long. But none of these actors transcends the limited material they're apportioned, either. You can feel that the Theater J audience is flattered to have Bikel on the cramped-looking stage of the Goldman Theater at the DC Jewish Community Center. It's a shame that the play is not a livelier challenge.
The undercurrent here is the remarkable Jewish resistance to extermination through the ages. Bikel's Rabbi Moses ben Nachman is sought by leading Christians to engage in a "disputation" -- a kind of philosophical tribunal -- to decide before the king (John Lescault) whether the Jews of Spanish Aragon should be forced to become Christians. His adversaries are a doctrinaire Jewish convert to Catholicism (Gero) and a gentler Dominican brother (Long) who's more open to compromise.
Maccoby's facility with dialogue extends only to what sound like excerpts from doctoral dissertations. As a result, the trial sequences are lethally untheatrical, and the lines uttered in more candid scenes correspond to an author's need to hurry us into his ideological courtroom. "God has called on you to cleanse Aragon of all nonbelievers!," Jacobson, as the play's major meanie, the queen, impatiently tells her reluctant husband.
Everyone is draped, presumably, in the clothing of 13th-century Spain. In so intimate a space, the costumes end up looking hokey, like the robes in the Bible epics they used to dramatize in grainy TV shows early on Sunday mornings. The footwear here is especially unconvincing. Many of the actors seem to have pulled their braided leather sandals out of shoe boxes only this afternoon, and in some cases, the workmanship indicates that Aragon boasted an outlet run by that noted cobbler of the Middle Ages, Don Pedro de Cole-Haan.
Bikel is suitably serious and compassionate -- a super-mensch -- but the playwright shows us no other side to this character. Several of the other actors tacitly acknowledge the lack of much to work with in understated performances. Lescault's king, on the other hand, is intended for yuks -- he's forever trying to find a good Jewish doctor for his back -- but the actor's behavior and mannerisms feel far too contemporary.
Medieval-studies majors may find the play to their taste. Others may conclude that the lesson of "The Disputation" can be boiled down to one thought: Avoid discussions of religion with strangers.
The Disputation, by Hyam Maccoby. Directed by Nick Olcott. Set, Daniel Ettinger; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Ryan Rumery. With Field Blauvelt, Tymberlee Chanel, Rahaleh Nassri. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 2 at Goldman Theater, DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.theaterj.org.