“New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza” strides back into Theater J after its acclaimed 2010 run as an established hit, and the show’s success is no mystery. The David Ives script is fierce, funny and up-to-the-minute in its moral investigations. And the cast knocks it out of the park.
The plot is about the 1656 excommunication of Spinoza — only in his early 20s, but already a daring philosopher — from the Jewish community. At stake: notions of God that rattle Jews and Christians alike, stoking resentment and fear and threatening the delicate political agreement under which Jews were “tolerated” in Amsterdam at the time.
The casual tone of Ives’s writing and Kathleen Geldard’s largely modern costuming — sport coats and turtlenecks, untucked Oxfords — aim to bring these debates into our own time. (Ideological infidelity: Is there any more potent Washington topic?) The judicial air of the hard wooden benches rising to the rafters on Misha Kachman’s set extends into the audience: We, the congregation, are implicated as director Jeremy Skidmore occasionally moves the actors up the aisles to look us in the eye.
Bright as the conception is, it’s the consistently intelligent acting that drives the entertaining play home. The original cast is back pretty much intact, led by Alexander Strain, whose youthful Spinoza beams with joy at his own insights. He’s charming even when his theories hit brick walls.
“I’m still working that out,” Spinoza admits when cross-examined to the limit, and there’s a lovely vulnerability to the way Strain plays uncertainty in the face of all that prosecutorial law and zealous dogma.
Largely, though, this Spinoza is confident and whip-smart, to invoke a phrase that easily applies to another recent hit by Ives, the mischievous comedy “Venus in Fur.” Ives being Ives — author of blisteringly funny short plays and the recent adaptation of Corneille’s “The Liar” at the Shakespeare Theatre — this courtroomlike drama is leavened by a fistful of good punch lines. The company stays on its toes, flowing with the brief riptides of comic relief without sacrificing the gravity of the situation.
Michael Tolaydo expertly blends high authority and personal concern as Spinoza’s mentor. A good deal of the show’s empathy and complexity radiates from Tolaydo’s exquisitely shaded work. (One terrific consequence of having a prodigy as the centerpiece: The interrogation feels like a disappointed family on the verge of breaking up.) Lawrence Redmond is deliciously imperious as the Christian regent in a resplendent white suit; Brandon McCoy is nicely naive as Spinoza’s pal; and Michael Kramer is amusing and frightening as a man profoundly confused by Spinoza’s revelations.
Like Kramer, the women are new to the cast, and they are excellent: Emma Jaster as the winsome Christian object of Spinoza’s chaste affections, and Colleen Delany, playing Spinoza’s shrewish sister with the fury of a Fury. The arguments sing, and they plainly resonate at Theater J, a rigorous troupe that has survived frictions over some of its Middle East-themed programming. The ability to think and speak freely: It’s a religion thing, a political thing, and a theater thing, as well. To this question, the company’s “New Jerusalem” speaks wisely, and well.
By David Ives. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. About 21 / 2 hours. Through April 1 at the Goldman Theater in the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.