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A CurtainUp Review
New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza At Talmud Torah Congregation
By Elyse Sommer
Ives' drama revolves around the events in 1656 leading the Amsterdam Talmud Torah Congregation to excommuniate one of its most brilliant members, a young merchant named Baruch de Spinoza. With people throughout the world more than ever violently at odds about religious mores and beliefs — the differences often dividing members of one religious group— young Spinoza's ouster from the religious community of Amsterdam adds up to an ever timely philosophical debate between embracing new ideas and clinging to rigid tradition.
If this sounds like a more natural fit for the rubric of history based discussion play than the clever and often hilarious one-acts and revisions of classic musicals that dominate the Ives canon, it is. There's also the danger that two hours of dialogue generously peppered with Spinoza's controversial and influential philosophical concepts about God, formal religion, the soul and the after life will turn into a one-sided debate stuffed with tidbits from the vast archives of writings by and about the man who prompted Albert Einstein to answer a question about his belief in God with "I believe in Spinoza's God." (A quick googling of his name will crank up 2,530,000 items about Spinoza's life and ideas).
By focusing on Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community, fictionalizing facts and distilling Spinoza's philosophical writings into the interchanges at the excommunication, Ives has managed to create an intriguing courtroom drama — and he's done so with just seven characters and a good deal of Ivesian wit. His venture into serious drama is greatly enhanced by having these characters spendidly portrayed by the cast at the Classic Stage. To steer them through the talk-heavy script with maximum dramatic momentum there's Walter Bobbie, a long-time Ives collaborator and well-known musical theater helmer.
The production is also well supported by a top of the line design team. John Lee Beatty has transformed the entire theater to evoke the synagogue as a courtroom, with the audience as 16th century Amsterdam which has only recently allowed the Jews openly practice their religion. But despite the claim by chief regent of Amsterdam (David Garrison) that Holland, unlike Spain, has recognized that Christians and Jews worship the same God and making Holland a glorious new Jersusalem for all of us, the city is still conservative and restrictive enough to make Rabbi Mortera (another feather in Richard Easton's achievement studded cap) nervous about nonconventional, outspoken thinkers like young Spinoza.
The Rabbi and the Christian chief regent, along with an elder on the Board of the congregation (Fyvush Finkel), represent the men against whom Spinoza (Jeremy Strong) must defend himself (according to some reports, Spinoza wasn't actually present at this hearing). However, the chief and most emotional conflict is between Rabbi Mortera and Spinoza. The Rabbi whose star pupil and surrogate son Spinoza has been is clearly pained by what he sees as his duty to protect his larger constituency (all the Jews of Amsterdam) from persecution by the ruling Christians offended by Spinoza's heretical actions and talk. Jeremy Strong, who I've only seen in minor roles before this, has a true star-making turn as Spinoza. His soulful dark eyes, his gentle but assured manner, and speech epitomize Bertrand Russell's description of Spinoza as "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers."
Fyvush Finkel and David Garrison are fine as the guardians of Judaic and Christian conformity. Natalia Payne's ardent young Christian woman who loves Spinoza is loosely based on the only woman ever rumored to be an early romantic interest. Michael Izquierdo has little to do as a painter and the friend who betrays Spinoza to his uncle (Garrison's Van Valenburgh). He seems as much part of the play to tie this in to the time when another famous man, Rembrant, lived and painted in Amsterdam. Jenn Harris as Spinoza's angry half-sister (another real life character) seems on scene mainly to add some amusing shtick and back up the concept established by Garrison (as well as the set which includes jury-like bars in front of the side seating sections) that the audience is part of a trial. While Harris is always a presence, her character's final pronouncements seem too convenient and sudden to be totally convincing—a minor flaw in an otherwise stimulating evening.
A brief factual note: While Spinoza's frequent couging throughout the play is an omen of his death from tuberculosis at age 44, it was not his unsuccessful trade in figs and other fruits that killed him but his career as lens grinder after he left Amsterdam. As for the trial draws to anj unsurprising conclusion, the rest of Spinoza's life was peaceful. He had many friends and his reputation has grown ever larger. For more information about his life and work, you can always check out some of those 2,530,000 Google entries.
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