nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 11, 2008
Already once this season off-Broadway we've seen a man's entire belief system destroyed and reconstructed (in Trumpery, when Charles Darwin presented his theories of evolution and natural selection to a colleague). In David Ives's New Jerusalem, this phenomenon happens again (which certainly says something about the kinds of Big Questions on the minds of at least some American playwrights right now).
This time the man stirring the cauldron of human thought is Baruch de Spinoza, a young member of Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish community in the mid-1600s who, when we meet him, is in the process of devising the philosophical ideas that will make him famous. Spinoza's central notion is that God and Nature are one and the same, a conclusion he is able to support through a rigorous logical process that seems to deny the existence of Faith; his views also seem to circumvent the concept of Free Will. (There's an interesting and detailed explanation of Spinoza's philosophy here.)
The man whose life explodes in the wake of Spinoza's insights is the Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam, Saul Levi Mortera, Spinoza's teacher and surrogate father—a brilliant thinker who begs his student not to share his subversive and disturbing thoughts with others but rather to try to find satisfaction in living a life within the established order of his community. The excellent actor Richard Easton portrays Mortera in New Jerusalem, and there is a wonderful moment when we see that Spinoza has finally convinced him of the truth of his ideas; it's a stunning, cataclysmic moment, reflected on Easton's face and in his body language, reminding us that once a revolutionary idea gets released into the universe, it can never be taken back: progress, such as it is, can only go in a forward motion.
Now, I should step back from this heady talk for just a moment and explain that New Jerusalem takes place at a kind of trial—as the play's subtitle puts it, this is "The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation." Mortera and Gaspar Ben Israel, a parnas (president or leader) of the temple, have convened this proceeding to determine whether Spinoza will be subject to cherem (loosely, excommunication) for his heretical teachings. In tried-and-true courtroom drama fashion, the audience sits in judgment as, in Act One, the case is made against Spinoza; in the play's second half, Spinoza delivers an eloquent defense. The outcome, available in the historical record, is not really in doubt here; Ives's triumph is to make the complex and challenging ideas that Spinoza espoused not only accessible but compelling and theatrical. A play of ideas like New Jerusalem is rare and exciting, and the playwright, director Walter Bobbie, and the cast generally make it work extremely well.
That cast includes, in addition to the estimable Easton, Jeremy Strong as the young philosopher, who gives us an appealing and intelligent Spinoza; Fyvush Finkel, who brings authority to the role of Ben Israel; Natalia Payne as the Christian music teacher with whom Spinoza is deeply in love (she finds great strength of character in this interesting young woman); Michael Izquierdo as Spinoza's friend Simon de Vries; and David Garrison, who is magnificently even-handed and forceful as Abraham van Valkenburgh, one of the regents of Amsterdam. Garrison's character instigates the entire proceeding in New Jerusalem, essentially ordering the leaders of the temple to punish or stifle Spinoza, whose heresies are beginning to "infect" Christian Amsterdam, or face wholesale banishment of the Jewish community. Van Valkenburgh is vital to Ives's play, and to one of its timely themes, which is the repression of free thought in a so-called "free" society. But the pure ideas of Spinoza trump this nod toward contemporary politics, becoming the single focus of New Jerusalem's second act. And it's worth noting that I can find no mention of Van Valkenburgh or any sort of threat to the Jewish community in the (admittedly limited) research I have done on Spinoza since seeing the play; did Ives take some license here, to make a point?
The play is imperfect, particularly in the inclusion of the character of Rebekah, Spinoza's grasping half-sister, who is portrayed here as a very stereotyped Jewish princess by Jenn Harris; she's not just offensive, but entirely unnecessary, seemingly present only to provide some uncomfortable comic relief from an otherwise serious study. And that climactic moment of transformation that I mentioned earlier in this review—the one where Easton's Rabbi Mortera realizes that Spinoza is probably right—doesn't achieve the startling catharsis that it should: though Easton plays it, Ives hasn't really written it, and the audience has to work hard to fill in the blanks and move to the dramatically exalted place that the play wants to take us to.
But don't let any of this deter you from the exhilaration of seeing a richly intellectual work of theatre that will stimulate all sorts of curiosities about the most fundamental questions facing humanity. What nobler purpose for the stage exists?