This is not to say that the play, which has been cannily directed by Walter Bobbie, isn’t funny. Ives hasn’t completely suppressed his natural comic gifts, or his penchant for biting one-liners that somehow draw more laughs than blood. But he hasn’t built his play exclusively upon them, rather treated his grave situation, the inquisition of philosopher Baruch de Spinoza over his unique reckonings of the nature of Nature and God, with an overarching lightness that also relieves the play’s subjects of the burden of history they’re unwittingly assuming. It’s as if the play is as unsure about the structure of its being as are the characters themselves.
Yet this does not transform New Jerusalem into either a namby-pamby biography or the dusty treatise on the evolution of religious or atheistic thought that Spinoza might seem to inspire. Ives has instead brought together elements of a traditional forbidden romance, a courtroom drama, and a story about a crisis of faith to form a quietly compelling look at how ancient words can forever be interpreted in new ways - and how dangerous that can be to those who put more credence in the words’ existence than their meaning.
For the play revolves around the attempts of the Jewish Spinoza (Jeremy Strong) to avoid excommunication in Amsterdam of 1656, when he’s prosecuted for potential blasphemy by the city’s Christian regent (David Garrison) and the rabbi who’s long been Spinoza’s surrogate father (Richard Easton). Spinoza’s conclusions, which recast the Creator as an inescapable element of physical existence, threaten not just the very notion of free will, but the very foundation on which the lives of the two older men - as well as many others in Amsterdam - have been constructed.
Ives needs time to chart the full destructive power of Spinoza’s wrecking-ball worldview, and skillfully utilizes it in a number of brief but vivid scenes that lead the philosopher from everyday interactions with his friend Simon (Michael Izquierdo) and Christian lover Clara (Natalia Payne) directly into the interrogation chamber. Once he’s arrived there, the ensuing hearing achieves its intended edge-of-the-seat dimensions, with fraught confrontations between all the various couplings (including Spinoza and his irritable half-sister, played by Jenn Harris) and the reversals and lengthy speeches that signal the climactic wane of any Earth-spanning story.
The play falters only when Ives is unwilling or unable to set aside modern fillips for the sake of the story - elements of espionage, romantic comedy, and even the presence of a selfish, wise-cracking vixen (that would be Harris, giving her usual and expectedly hilarious all) who becomes a convert of consummate importance, interfere with the taut plotting on which most of the narrative thrives. True, the presence of Fyvush Finkel in the somewhat unnecessary role of an influential Jewish elder adds some Yiddish comic flair of questionable cohesive properties, but the actor’s gravitas, inherent likability, and staunch professionalism bridge the gap between the centuries in a way that Ives’s other convention-shuffling only occasionally does.
So, too, does Strong feel out of place, convincing less as an itinerant outsider than as a college-student willing to rouse any rabble necessary to convince others he’s more important than he himself actually believes. But he brings such solemnity and conviction to Spinoza, especially in his lengthy dogma-shattering speeches in the second act, that you nonetheless accept him as a respectfully resigned martyr. Garrison and Easton make for powerful yet sympathetic foils, while Izquierdo and Payne wittily circumscribe Spinoza’s own contemporaries in ways that paint a startlingly clear picture of how history will propagate itself once the great thinker himself has passed on.
This notion of bequeathing and inheriting ideas is what propels the play, and ultimately what helps it succeed as a play about modern issues without needing to openly insult or condescend to any particular point of view. If, as Spinoza says, “True happiness can only come from man’s attempt to comprehend God,” most of New Jerusalem is substantive enough to create considerable satisfaction of its own.