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Nathan the Wise

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stark Sands and F. Murray Abraham
Photo by Richard Termine

A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walk into Jerusalem and... Wow, that really does sound like some sort of corny joke, doesn't it? Sorry—that tone is not explicitly correct for Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 verse drama. It works tirelessly to make soberly considered, worth-remembering points about religious tolerance between the three towering Abrahamic religions that have been at odds through most (if not all) of the last 1,400 years. But if Lessing's work is serious-minded, Brian Kulick's new production of the play for Classic Stage Company too often feels as though it isn't.

To be fair, Kulick, CSC's outgoing artistic director (John Doyle succeeds him next year), has made his choices in what is obviously good faith. To make the work more instantly accessible to today's audiences, he's chosen a translation (by Edward Kemp) that downplays the classical (literal and figurative) poetry of the tale that, as done here, is trimmed heavily (the evening runs barely two hours, including an intermission); introduced a "modern dress" element to bring it in line with the present-past fusion expectations ignited by the likes of the Broadway musical Hamilton; and cast in the leads a couple of familiar, popular actors, F. Murray Abraham and Stark Sands, and instructed the whole cast to tread lightly, to blow any remaining cakes of dust.

Any one, or perhaps two, of these approaches might have been sufficient to sand down the rougher edges of this improbable and overstuffed pseudo-Shakespearean piece. But taken all together, they rob the work of the weight and the import that might have made it worth doing in the first place.

Its story, on its face, is no sparkle-packed spectacular: The religions' three representatives, the Jewish Nathan (Abraham), the Muslim sultan Saladin (Austin Durant), and the Knight Templar (Stark Sands), become embroiled in a series of bizarre, loopy entanglements that typify Jerusalem in 1192, during the Third Crusade, when tensions between the groups were high and respect wavering. Saladin seeks to borrow money from the moneylender Nathan (because what other career would a Jew pursue?), whose daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) was rescued from drowning by the Templar, who in turn bears an eerie resemblance to the Saladin's dear, departed brother.

Each man ends up wanting something from the others (the Templar, for example, thinks Rachel is mighty pretty), but in some way or another falls afoul of their spiritual convictions; a significant central plot point involves Saladin attempting to trick Nathan with a question about which of the three faiths is the true one. And all eventually end up in the palace so everything may be set aright, with lessons learned, families bolstered, and prejudices diminished. (That Lessing posited this conclusion after falling afoul of the authorities for his own religious publication, and that the Church forbade the play to be produced during his lifetime, is perhaps a minor miracle associated with its creation.)

Unlikeliness dogs the play, though, with coincidences and far-fetched circumstances dancing around the characters up to the final lines. Very much a soap-opera tract, it wants to float away on the wind, and would if not for the heft of its language and its presentation. Kemp's colloquial, notably unmusical dialogue does not make the former easy to begin with (Lessing's original is loaded with subtle, clever lyricism and wordplay that other translations make a stronger effort to match), and the to-the-bone cuts stop the lines from gaining any traction. And Kulick precludes the latter by jolting contemporaneity at every turn, from the set (Tony Straiges) and lights (Joe Novak) that make the town-square locale look Technicolor in its airy aridness to costumes (by Anita Yavich) that are high on T-shirts, jeans, and untucked button-downs, and even to the new Brechtian pre-show in which the actors not only discuss what they're about to perform, but devolve into a screeching, stage-spanning, multilingual shouting match that reminds you that the stakes are Incredibly High.

Games like these lower the stakes, though, because they rip the situations out of the realm of believability; we can't be immersed in something that tells us, at the outset, that immersion is impossible. Brecht knew this and used these devices in his own writing, but they're not easily applied ex post facto to plays intended to be genuine. What happens instead is that the performances only skim the surface of what's possible and engage on neither the emotional nor the intellectual level; or, in the case of actress Caroline Lagerfelt, who's unwisely cast as the doctrine-driven Christian Patriarch, come across more as parody than they do chilling.

That's not Lagerfelt's fault; she's much better (if still too flighty) as Rachel's confidant Daya, suggesting the underlying premise is flawed. But that's true of everyone. How else to explain why Starks, one of New York's finest younger actors is so ineffectual as the Templar? He's a naif masquerading as a heavy, which rarely works. Ditto Abraham, who's working so hard to avoid the caricatures built into Nathan that the resulting performance lacks any noticeable conviction at all. (His delivery of the central and famous "ring speech," a parable reflecting all three religions' relationships to God, is almost too compellingly off-handed.) Neufer and Shiva Kalaiselvan, as the Sultan's sister, imbue their roles with welcome intelligence, and George Abud, as the comic-relief Dervish Al-Hafi, gives the part an appealing, straight spin. But only Durant seems able to make his character everything he needs to be: sympathetic, questioning, and sincere, but also forceful—a man who could not be more comfortable with who he is and what he believes.

This Nathan the Wise could use a lot more of that, though just after intermission the balance becomes—perhaps unintentionally—correct. Durant and Abud, speaking quietly to themselves and kneeling every so often on the rugs placed before them, do a complete cycle of Islamic evening prayers just as Saladin and Al-Hafi might, punctuating the air every so often with a distinct "Allahu Akbar" that reinforces how any language—even simply naming God—can be stolen and profaned by the right wrong people. The words aren't Lessing's, but they cut to the core of the message he wanted to set forth. These ancient sayings, treated so nakedly and honestly, say more than all the rest of this production's modern ministrations put together.

Nathan the Wise
Through May 1
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
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