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THEATER REVIEW

Talk Heavy

Ponderous approach weakens drama about anti-Semitism.

September 18, 1997|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Between Two Thieves" is, in a word, polemic.

If only it were also dramatic.

Warner LeRoy's work may have seemed innovative rather than tedious when it first appeared off-Broadway in 1960. Perhaps that original production was more stylized than the current revival at the Group Repertory Theatre. Perhaps the performances were so stellar that the audience ignored its long-windedness.

The play is structured around a Jewish family who mourns the loss of their son in a strange manner: They restage the trial of Jesus as a theatrical event. Because their own son was killed by an anti-Semitic mob, they hope to show the world, one audience at a time, that Jews for centuries have been inaccurately blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus.

The 12 actors seated on stage are suggestive of a modern jury, but also become witnesses--Mary, Joseph, apostles. The family members act as judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. But the whole setup is really more of an inquest: No one portrays Jesus, they all just recount the various maneuvers that landed him on a cross at Calvary between two thieves.

This contemporary disputation, directed by Lonny Chapman, gets bogged down by the exposition necessary to get it off the ground. It falls to William Arrigon (subbing in that performance for Richard Tirrell) as the high priest Caiphas to lay out all the details: how Jesus was turned over to the Sanhedrin--the council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem--who then handed him over to the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate (Shelly Kurtz).

Because the show is double cast, the actors alternate weekends. At this performance, Kurtz's Nixon-styled Pilate gave the play some of its lighter moments. Arrigon conveyed a patient logic. Jasper Cole, as the surviving son/prosecutor, spent a good deal of time buttoning his blazer over his puffed-out chest. His performance was otherwise too smug, too slick for a character who later reveals his own terrible flaws in what is meant to be the play's climax.

The surprise performance--and the play's best writing--comes in the scenes with Judas (Kerry Logan). Here, one of the most one-dimensional characters in Christianity emerges as complex, even sympathetic.

But the second act is troublesome. In it, the father (Dominick Morra) moderates a "symposium." The actors have taken seats in the theater and adopted modern roles--a priest, an agnostic, a prodigal son, a call girl. It's surprising the first time an actor jumps up and shouts. By the fourth or fifth time, it's hard to suppress a groan.

Undeniably, LeRoy raises some fascinating religious and ethical questions. Was Jesus the messiah? What does it mean to preach forgiveness to an oppressed people? Was the crucifixion of Jesus a turning point for mankind? Is the world we live in Christian?

One doesn't expect answers to these questions. But one does expect more direction, more momentum than this second act has to offer. It effectively--if not efficiently--dissects modern Christianity. Yet the Jews in the play are remarkably devoid of spirituality, strange for a play that sets out to reveal the unjust roots of anti-Semitism.

BE THERE

"Between Two Thieves," at the Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; through Oct. 11. $15. (818) 769-7529.

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