Review: 'New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza' at Theater J
Friday, July 2, 2010
How refreshing: a play of ideas in which you actually learn something. Unlike so many gassier entries in this category, Theater J's edifying "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza" features a gallery of intriguing characters, nonstop enlightened argument and even -- hold the phone -- a socko finish.
As a bonus, the production, smartly handled by director Jeremy Skidmore, offers several extremely effective performances and two of the powerhouse variety: from Michael Tolaydo, as a Jewish spiritual leader confounded by his iconoclastic protégé, and Alexander Strain, as the upstart thinker and visionary 17th-century rationalist Baruch de Spinoza.
Certainly, if your tolerance is limited for discussions of such trivial matters as The Meaning of Everything, dramatist David Ives's battle of intellectual wills may not be the summer tonic you're seeking. Consider, though, that this is no dry exercise in pedagogy; it's a vigorous act of theatrical investigation. Ives, author of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's exuberantly smart-alecky adaptation of "The Liar," is a playwright who sees cerebral gamesmanship as an essential element of drama.
As a result, the clash of philosophies in "New Jerusalem" comes across as a volatile struggle between the kind of conscience-driven men who spend sleepless nights contemplating the future of humankind. This being a play and not a sermon, there is an emotional overlay, too, in the question of whether one is betraying one's community by challenging its most ingrained tenets.
The piece is based on a historical event, the 1656 tribunal in Amsterdam -- a haven from the Spanish Inquisition for Portuguese Jews such as Spinoza -- convened to decide whether the 23-year-old Spinoza should be excommunicated from Judaism. Accused of espousing atheism at a time when Jews were required by Dutch law to abide by the strictures of their faith, Spinoza is perceived as a threat by both the Jewish elders and their Christian overseers, eager for an outwardly serene status quo to be maintained.
One of the fascinating facets of Ives's play is the degree to which the gears of the gentle Spinoza's probing intellect, and his effort to understand the nature of the universe in ways not explained in Scripture, seem to his adversaries to be instruments of chaos and terror. The play is in this sense a virtual public service announcement for unregulated expression, prima facie evidence that a search for truth can set you free.
As a match for Ives's contemporary-sounding language, Skidmore puts the actors in vaguely modern dress: Courtesy of costume designer Kathleen Geldard, the Christian regent Valkenburgh (an elegant Lawrence Redmond) wears a fastidious white suit and shoes; Tolaydo's Rabbi Mortera is in sober pinstripes. The effect is to remove some of the stylistic barriers that can turn this sort of play into talky period drama.
The characters gather in set designer Misha Kachman's eye-pleasing rendering of the sanctuary of a synagogue, where wooden benches on risers also contribute to the sense of a star chamber. The audience, too, plays its part: We're the congregation, called on to witness the deconstruction of Spinoza's radical views on God, religion, nature and eternity, all of which are explained with remarkable clarity.
Strain's galvanizing portrayal, by turns airy and impassioned, infuses Spinoza with likeability: He seems very much the generous, if slightly distracted, soul described by those who love him and especially by Clara (Lauren Culpepper), the gentile with whom he is in love but for whom he won't convert. Why, he asks at one point, would he give up the absurdity of one religion for the illogic of another?
The courtroom theatrics of "New Jerusalem" -- Valkenburgh seeks a finding by the synagogue of heretical acts by Spinoza so the young philosopher can be banished -- ultimately are most helpful in illuminating Spinoza's impact on the other attendees, particularly Mortera. Tolaydo's warm authority makes believable the rabbi's affection for Spinoza; Ives skillfully cloaks the character in ambiguous intent. Will he protect his brilliant student or turn his back on him, for the sake of his own neck and the community's security? The mournful conclusion suggests his decision comes at a high personal cost.
Although Culpepper gives an appealingly sympathetic account of Clara, three other actors have the tougher jobs of playing Spinoza's friends and relatives. The tasks facing Brandon McCoy, Ethan Bowen and Eliza Bell are harder, because the plot requires their characters to undergo rapid shifts in loyalty, and these result in the evening's isolated moments of clunkiness. Bell, as Spinoza's aggrieved half-sister Rebekah, must take the most unconvincing leap, from tormenter of Spinoza to his ardent defender, in the space of what feels like nanoseconds.
Still, all three add color to the exhilarating canvas of this play, one with the effrontery to put big thoughts out there and force you to think about them.
of Baruch de Spinoza
by David Ives. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Lighting, Thom Weaver; sound, Matt Nielson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through July 25 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-TIXS.