Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Tim's review of Deathtrap
David Ives' New Jerusalem played last fall at the Lantern Theater Company and was the best-selling production in the theater's 18-year history. The play has now been brought back, with the same cast, in a new engagement playing through September 23. Here is Tim's review of last year's production.
Baruch de Spinoza's teachings would go on to have a huge impact on the Enlightenment and, in turn, the American Revolution, but in 17th century Holland, those teachings were dangerous, and not just to Spinoza himself. Under an agreement made nearly forty years earlier, Jews in Amsterdam were allowed to worship "freely"which is to say, not freely at all. All Jews had to be "faithful" (by the city's definition) and were not allowed to discuss religion with gentiles. The city charged Spinoza with discrediting Judaism by becoming an atheist. As the play opens, he's been called to account by a Christian city official to defend himself before the congregation of his own synagogue. The penalty for these dangerous thoughts could be banishment by the city and excommunication by his faithand if the Jews do not agree to punish Spinoza, their already precarious existence could become even more difficult.
Spinoza proves that he is not an atheistbut what is he? In defending himself, he reveals a complex philosophy that is far different from Judaism, not to mention any religious or philosophical principles ever discussed before. The final decision on Spinoza's fate turns out to be far more difficult than expected.
New Jerusalem is constructed like a courtroom drama, with Spinoza arguing his case against his opponents. Ives stacks the deck heavily in Spinoza's favor, at least as far as the audience is concerned. Unlike his opponents, Spinoza is presented as open and trusting, a lover of art and nature who has no motivation to lie and who unquestioningly forgives his friends and family for their lack of faith in him. And, while all the other actors wear stately costumes (designed by Maggie Baker) that seem appropriate for their era, Spinoza looks as if he could have stepped out of ours. With his long hair, open-necked white shirt, black straight-leg pants and a jacket that looks like he might have purchased it at Urban Outfitters, he looks pretty hip (or as hip as you can be while wearing a yarmulke). Sam Henderson's portrayal is warm and appealing, and that gives Spinoza's arguments an advantage that his opponents lack.
But those opponents have the final say, and they have the gifts of certainty and authority that Spinoza lacks. As the city official, Seth Reichgott goes after Spinoza with the vicious zeal of a star prosecutorbut it's when he stands silently, watching the proceedings with expressions that are simultaneously intelligent and uncomprehending, that Reichgott makes his strongest impression. David Bardeen plays Rabbi Mortera, who taught Spinoza from childhood and now must find out just where his prize student stands. Mortera wants to be lenient and let Spinoza off the hook, but he cannot keep himself from probing Spinoza to find out moreand he doesn't like all that he hears. Bardeen effectively suggests all the doubts that plague the rabbi as he tries to protect both his friend and the entire Jewish community.
The supporting cast is excellent, including David Blatt as a congregant who reacts badly when his worldview is challenged, Kittson O'Neill as Spinoza's strident sister, and Mary Tuomanen in a touching, nuanced performance as Spinoza's conflicted Christian girlfriend. Jake Blouch gives some spark to the role of Spinoza's traitorous friend, but the role is little more than a padded plot device.
Director Charles McMahon effectively builds the tension inherent in Ives' well-structured play. The play can seem static at times; it's hard to be swept up in drama when you're listening to a speech about what we can (or can't) do to earn salvation. But even if you get lost in the theoretical twists and turns, you won't be bored. McMahon and company help make New Jerusalem, against all odds, compelling.
New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 runs through September 23, 2012, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $20 to $38, with $10 student rush tickets available, and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, online at www.lanterntheater.org or in person at the box office.
New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud
Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656