David Ives, the adapter of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, may be earning guffaws on Broadway, and director Walter Bobbie may still be evoking pangs of wicked glee from his revival of Chicago, but with
New Jerusalem, now at Classic Stage Company, these artists deliver something darker and more serious: an engrossing historical drama based on the 1656 interrogation of philosopher Baruch de Spinoza that led to his excommunication from the Jewish faith and banishment from Amsterdam. While the outcome of New Jerusalem is a given, we don’t stop hoping that the play might waver from the historical record.
In Bobbie’s production, the audience is cast as the congregation, who sits and watches as Baruch (Jeremy Strong) undergoes questioning by Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), a Christian and regent of Amsterdam. Our role as judges in the synagogue — John Lee Beatty’s spare and elegant scenic design consists of a mammoth wooden table and numerous chairs — is established from the play’s outset, with an “opening statement” from van Valkenburgh that Garrison delivers with grand passion and imperiousness. (His severe performance is enhanced by the austerity of his jet-black cape and doublet by designer Anita Yavich.)
We follow keenly the process by which Baruch attempts to defend himself in the proceeding, which is attended by both Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Easton), the chief Rabbi of Amsterdam and Baruch’s mentor, and Gaspar Rodriques Ben Israel (Fyvush Finkel), a leader of the congregation. Baruch has been called in front of these men because of his “atheism” and for his unwillingness to abide by the agreement that allowed Jews to move into the city in the first decades of the 17th century. Worse, particularly in van Valkenburgh’s mind, is Baruch’s flaunting of the law which forbids Jews from discussing religion with gentiles, specifically his best friend and roommate, Simon (Michael Izquierdo), and Clara (an overly forced Natalia Payne), the young Christian woman whom he loves, but under law may never marry.
Even as we contemplate the somewhat archaic agreement that allowed Jews to immigrate to Holland from Portugal, we also see parallels to present-day governmental deals between opposing sides that ultimately sour. When the proceeding becomes more of a debate than a prosecution — and Baruch asks those present to contemplate how the gods of these two faiths can each claim supremacy — it’s impossible not to wish that the world’s religions might have somehow resolved the same issue in the past four centuries.
While Ives serves up complex philosophy and theology in New Jerusalem, he never allows the play to stall dramatically. A sudden revelation about one of the individuals called to testify against Baruch elicits gasps from the audience. Moreover, as Mortera (played by Easton with a sumptuous mix of patriarchal pride, hauteur, and heartbreaking disappointment) attempts to strike the deal that might allow Baruch to remain within the Jewish community, Ives’ play takes on the quality of a taut and haunting family drama.
Humor is not only prevalent in Ives’ script, but also in Bobbie’s sure-handed production and several performances. Jenn Harris, playing Baruch’s shrewish and avaricious half-sister Rebekah, calls to mind the work of Jackie Hoffman; each of Rebekah’s overwrought demands for Baruch’s instant excommunication are accompanied by exaggerated gestures that are hilariously ludicrous. Finkel’s turn can be equally comic, but unfortunately, when this elder of the community turns against Baruch, his performance fails to pummel the dramatic depths we suspect Ives intends.
At the center of the production, however, is Strong’s superlative performance as Baruch. He imbues this philosopher with an instantly infectious dreaminess and impishness; at other times, he broods with an intensity that completely captures our attention. Much like New Jerusalem itself.