Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Classic Stage Company
The year is 1656, and the city is Amsterdam, where the Jewish community has lived in comfort (even affluence) ever since its people had arrived a century and a half earlier. The Jews, grateful for the Dutch welcome after their escape from the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s, had worked out a comfortable modus operandi with their hosts. It meant living side by side, but separately, with respect for each other’s faith. It also meant, for the Jews, keeping a low profile, making no waves.
And into this world arose a young upstart, one Baruch de Spinoza, a Jew but not a Jew. Spinoza, well steeped in Jewish scriptures, questioned everything—Jewish and Christian theology in equal measure. And he did so openly. He viewed the scriptures, not as handed down by God, but as man-made. Such a view was seen as an arrogant, unacceptable straying from the fold. For Spinoza, who would later be recognized as one of our greatest philosophers, it simply meant the pursuit of truth. As Spinoza saw the universe, God was not a separate entity, but one with nature--a kind of pantheism in which the Devine infused everything.
Thus the stage is set for dramatic conflict, and playwright David Ives has taken the historic facts and run with the story. The story is confined to a single day, in which Spinoza is interrogated at Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Congregation, an inquiry which leads to his ultimate excommunication. The inquiry is initiated by the Christian city regent, one van Valkenburgh, but is eventually turned over to the leaders of his own people.
The Classic State Company, an eminent off-Broadway company, has brought the big guns into play, in mounting “New Jerusalem.” Ives himself is a gifted playwright, as is Walter Bobbie a director. Add to that the award-winning set designer John Lee Beatty, and a dream cast which includes Richard Easton, David Garrison, and Fyvush Finkel.
Topping the cast is an extraordinary young actor—one Jeremy Strong—in the role of Spinoza. He plays it against the grain—against expectations, against clichés—creating a unique and compelling portrait of a young man bent upon his solo journey. But he is also supported by a fine ensemble, including, not only the above players, but Michael Izquierdo, Natalia Payne, and Jenn Harris.
Thus it is not surprising that this is a strong production, beautifully mounted and directed. The flaws, as they exist, belong not to the production, but to the play itself. “New Jerusalem,” dealing with Spinoza’s ideas, is necessarily a talky piece. Inevitably, every one stands around supporting or refuting Spinoza, with Spinoza himself in the center of the whirlpool.
And though there are well-drawn characters, lively exchanges, and a clear-cut exposition of Spinoza’s views, what the play lacks is a mounting intensity, a building toward a climax. The passions, the battles, remain on the same level throughout. Moreover, Ives (or perhaps director Bobbie) could have injected the excommunication rite with more drama. Numerous lit candles (rather than just one) could have been extinguished, leading to the final darkness.
In any event, “New Jerusalem” is a play of ideas which should generate a new interest in Spinoza, particularly among today’s Jewish audiences with their widely divergent views.
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 13, 2008