David Schneider steps out of his usual company – the comic fraternity of Armando Iannucci, Patrick Marber and Steve Coogan – to write and act in his first professional stage play. The Eleventh Commandment draws equally on Schneider's career in comedy and his appreciation of Jewish culture (to the extent of an incomplete doctoral thesis on Yiddish theatre). It shows a keen comic intelligence in fevered negotiations with the theatrical form, but the ultimate contract struck between the two is something of a fudge.
The play chronicles Daniel Feinman's decision to "marry out" – or, as he corrects himself, to "live in sin out". On the realistic level, this leads to tussles with his mother (Sheila Steafel), who believes that such a move will, in ending the Jewish family line, constitute a Final Solution no less culpable than the Holocaust she survived; Daniel's imagination also provides a couple of undercover detectives from Jewish Affairs, a Mastermind-style Inquisition session, and legal counsel from Moses (one of several playful cameos from Jeffrey Segal) – not to mention an updated account of God's covenant with Abraham, sporadic "pieces to camera" from Daniel's Ulster Protestant newsreader girlfriend and a small mountain of Tupperware containers filled with food from momma.
The evening is bursting with ideas, from an after-date session on the sofa in which Daniel (played by Schneider) and Christina consider each move as if playing a game of mechanical chess to a peripheral litany of misfortunes befalling Nicholas Ball's detective inspector. This imaginative fecundity is at once a strength and a drawback. Schneider writes terrific scenes – sketches, in effect – with the surreal vision of a hyper-exuberant early Woody Allen, but you wish that he would remain on one level for more than a couple of minutes and give director Matthew Lloyd a chance to build some kind of dramatic momentum.
Yet, when he becomes conscious of the approaching conclusion and makes his serious points, he does so with the uncomfortable directness of middle-period Allen. Tracey Lynch's underwritten Christina suddenly finds on her plate an impassioned speech about the alluring power of being a victim; in the next scene, Daniel's mother sees that bid and raises it, so to speak, with an even more ardent statement. These passages are poorly integrated into proceedings and awkwardly received by the audience, which can seize upon the slightest pretext to relieve itself with inappropriate laughter.
Whilst the play addresses Schneider's Jewish culture with insight and sensitivity, its main problems are with his background as an individual, that of comedy. When he reconciles the two more smoothly he will be a mightily impressive writer; in the meantime, The Eleventh Commandment is more than serviceable as a slice of neurotic Jewish humour.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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