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Nathan the Wise

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gotthold Lessing's 18th century play, Nathan the Wise, is perhaps most widely recognized for its ring parable, in which a father bequeaths a valuable ring and two near-identical copies of it to his three sons, who then go to battle - and then to court - over which ring is the true one.

Easily recognizable outside of Nathan the Wise as referring the three linked religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, its meaning in context is equally as great, playing a prominent role in helping dissipate the hatred among the play's characters. The parable remains more or less intact in the new Pearl Theatre Company production of Nathan the Wise, but how much else does is somewhat debatable.

The Pearl is using an adaptation of the play by Richard Sewell who admits in his program notes that his text "is not translation but neither is it deconstruction," but that he's "tried hard to respect the tone." Perhaps he should have tried harder, for the script he's provided to director Barbara Bosch is bland and almost tedious, hitting the basic dramatic points but finding no weight in the material. Therefore, her production ends up as much of the same.

Taking place as it does in Jerusalem, dealing with the personal and religious conflicts between the three warring religions, Nathan the Wise has a certain timeless quality by design. But Sewell's work reflects a particularly modern view of the conflict, even down to a significant reworking of the ending in which the Muslim Sultan Saladin (Scott Whitehurst) directly exhorts the audience for tolerance. This moment did not exist in this particular form in either the original German version nor a near word-for-word translation I was able to find.

But the basic messages and plot remain present, with Nathan, the rich Jewish debt collector (played by John Camera), returning home to learn that his daughter, Rebecca (Eunice Wong) was rescued from a fire by a wandering Knight Templar, Kurt (Christopher Moore). But their inherent prejudices, and those of the society in which they live, prevent them from connecting with each other and allowing their bonds to develop, until a series of discoveries allows them to embrace their commonalities at last.

But it's here, in the production's last few scenes that the modernity of Sewell's adaptation works in the show's favor instead of against it. His text, here peppered with an appropriately wry ironic outlook, and Bosch's well-judged direction make the somewhat implausible events of the show's last few moments believable. All this gives the end of the play the dramatic heft and significance it needs throughout.

With the exception of Moore's Templar, who lacks the heroic sense ascribed him by Rebecca, the cast is generally strong across the board. Camera's gently driving performance as Nathan works well, as does Sally Kemp's more energetic portrayal of Daja, Rebecca's guardian. Wong possesses a friendly charm, as does Edward Seamon as a Christian friar with a vital secret. Whitehurst's Saladin possesses the appropriate air of regality and Celeste Ciulla stands out in her small (and somewhat thankless role) as his sister.

But the message of toleration is almost always the prime focus in Nathan the Wise, and Lessing's original words make the point effectively enough. It's a shame that the Pearl production, through Sewell's translations, don't allow those words to be heard more clearly.

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Pearl Theatre Company
Nathan the Wise
Through November 24
Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark's Place between First and Second Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 598-9802