But wait, you ask, just what is a disputation anyway? During the Dark Ages, when Church-sponsored anti-Semitism flourished in Europe, public trials were held in which Jewish scholars were forced to defend their religion. When they failed to satisfy the Church authorities, entire communities of Jews were, as the program notes put it, "forcibly baptized." (Read: threatened with death if they didn't convert.) King James I of Aragon was said to have described a disputation in Barcelona -- in which one Rabbi Moses ben Nachman successfully persuaded his audience that Judaism was valid -- with the comment: "Never have I heard so unjust a cause so skillfully argued."
Let me add that in the 20th-century dramatic re-creation, rarely have I seen such inherently fascinating subject matter turned into a sleeping potion. This month, which included Holocaust Remembrance Day and the ongoing terrorization of ethnic Albanians in Europe, a drama that looks at religious persecution ought to be particularly perspicacious. Even without that real-life backdrop, the notion of having the Rabbi (played by Bikel) go up against Pablo Christiani (Watson), a charismatic Dominican monk who was born a Jew and converted, is thrilling. How does Maccoby, a Jewish-studies scholar with no experience as a playwright, turn the stuff of gold into lead?
It suffices to say that despite the considerable efforts of this high-caliber cast, not one individual in the story emerges as a full-fledged character. (Witkin plays the king, whose precarious power base is threatened by his extramarital dalliances; Wise is the Dominican instigator Raymond de Penaforte, who proposes the disputation partly as a way for King James to regain credibility in the eyes of the Church.) In place of individuals with human quirks and contradictions, each person who appears on stage in The Disputation is merely a mouthpiece for a particular idea or social custom. Even when they're populated with good characters, courtroom dramas are often little more than a contrived way to air ideas. Here the play's sympathies are clearly with the rabbi (not that I'm complaining), which means there's really no debate going on at all.
If Maccoby's intent was to recount and catalog the nefarious seeds of anti-Semitism, he should have either stuck to the scholarship that is his forte or hired a dramatic collaborator. Director Bob Kalfin's heavy-handed approach to staging nearly matches the plodding tone of the script. In place of subtlety he gives us cymbal crashes and broad-stroke flourishes. An account of the human price paid by those whose lives were affected by disputations and their consequences is sorely missing.