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Live Theater Week; New Jerusalem

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 Leave a Comment

Much like Jason, I am not Gus. Instead, I'm Isaiah. Yeah, that guy. This is my first blogpost. Wow. Also, hi!

Readers of FluxBlog, did you know that this week is Live Theater Week here in New York? It's true that every week could be called that, I suppose, but not with those Fancy Capital Letters. What makes this Week different from all those other quotidian, lower-case-w weeks? Well, if you clicked that link above you would discover that you can purchase 2-for-1 tickets to many excellent shows. Take your sweetheart! Take your boss! Take some random person off the street!

One show you should definitely check out is New Jerusalem at Classic Stage Company, a new play by David Ives. The action centers on the heresy trial of Baruch de Spinoza by the religious authorities of Amsterdam in 1656, but the emotional core of the play is the changing relationship between Spinoza (an enthusiastic Jeremy Strong; center in the above photo) and Chief Rabbi Mortera (Richard Easton, powerful and commanding; left), his careful mentor, loving father-figure, and, ultimately, the one who is bound with final judgment and choice of sentence. Spinoza is blessed and cursed by the inability to betray his own line of thought; given wings, he must fly, even if the flight is straight into a cage, and he'll take anyone who will fly with him. Mortera is bound by different chains, religious and civic, and knows that there are some things one cannot believe and remain a Jew or a citizen of Amsterdam; has Spinoza crossed that line? Can he be brought back? Mortera struggles with these even as he struggles with the brilliant, self-searching Spinoza; the play is by far at its strongest when it throws these two well-drawn, undeniably likable characters first with, and then against one another.

Also weighing in are the lay leader of the congregation, Gaspar Rodriguez Ben Israel (Yiddish theater veteran Fyvush Finkel, having a ball of a time), and Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), a regent of Amsterdam. It is Valkenburgh who was set the heresy trial in motion, a bit of creative fiction by Ives but a believable one, since after Spinoza was convicted by the religious court, he was also banished by the civil authorities. Valkenburgh and Ben Israel provide well-appreciated counterweight and exposition, balanced well with the heady ideas bandied about by the Talmud-educated, Maimonides-quoting Mortera and Spinoza. Clara Van den Enden (Natalia Payne), Spinoza's impossible love (she's Catholic), provides a much-needed emotional parallel to the proceedings; her final words are haunting and, ultimately, express the need for Spinoza's civil banishment as well as heresy conviction.

The play is not perfect. Ives overplays his hand with both Valkenburgh and Ben Israel, giving us brief cause to question the former's stated civic motives, and oversimplifying the latter's transition from avuncular, reflexive support ("These are not the words of an athiest!") to terrified condemnation. Rebekah de Spinoza (Jenn Harris), Spinoza's half-sister, seems to have wandered in from another, more broadly-drawn play, and there's no need for Ives to so blatantly manipulate Spinoza's friend Simon de Vries (Michael Izquierdo) to keep him in the action, then maneuver him out of it, then toss him in again. 90% of the play takes place in the congregation's hall, whose set (designed by John Lee Beatty) is pitch-perfect and dominated by a gigantic table; why, then, does Ives take us out of this claustrophobic, decidedly deliberative space for one expository scene at the pier? Why not just start at the real point of attack: the start of the trial?

These are all distractions, and it's a shame because, as I said, the heart of the play is rock solid, emotionally moving, and eloquent. And while they might keep this play from being brilliant, they are not nearly enough to keep it from being great. Moreover, the issues that are discussed here -- the purpose of government, freedom of religion and freedom from religion, how we treat outsiders with insidious ideas, the nature of "the most tolerant society on earth" -- are very much at the heart of our current cultural moment, here in New Amsterdam.

Bottom line: Go see this play! It closes on the 10th; as I said, tickets are 2-for-1 this week.

(And go see it on a Sunday for a free talk-back with Ives and leading Spinoza scholars, or on Tuesday, as I did, for a talk-back with the cast)


  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Isaiah, you write reviews like a reviewer. I'm impressed and also slightly intimidated.