David Ives has done with “New Jerusalem” what many of us do when we’re hungry late at night and have only two edible things — things that might go well together, you never know — left in the refrigerator: he has made a sandwich out of his interests. The result is an intellectual mashup of Baruch de Spinoza’s “Ethics,” his biography, and a thin patina of courtroom drama mostly negated by the windy exposition. It tastes like day-old Stoppard.
Spinoza (Jeremy Strong) clearly fascinates Ives (who wittily updated Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” for its recent Broadway bow), and he’s given the long-dead philosopher most of the play in which to urgently explain the existence of God in a beautiful hardwood meeting house designed by John Lee Beatty.
The dramatic impetus for this lecture is twofold: there are Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), a Catholic afraid that Jewish Spinoza’s ideas constitute blasphemy and will bring down the hammer on the rest of Jewish community in Amsterdam, and Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Easton), the initially skeptical rabbi who has to decide whether to exile Spinoza.
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“New Jerusalem” belongs to a crowded subgenre of plays about secularists who suffer at the hands of religious nuts, but that doesn’t make it bad. Other things make it bad. For one, Baruch is never wrong. He starts off in the right, he continues to be right, and as he proceeds to the end of the play, for a switch, he is verifiably correct. Ives’ single stab at giving the play’s central character a little depth comes in the form of Clara (Natalia Payne), the girl Baruch loves, who cherishes her Christian faith and is hurt when he criticizes it. Still, his criticisms are made to seem unimpeachable.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, that’s not really drama. You can’t have a play with one character if that character doesn’t even conflict with himself, and thus, “New Jerusalem” isn’t really a play. It’s just one guy standing on the stage telling us what he thinks about God. Occasionally, someone will ask him a question or angrily repeat his last few words so that Baruch is “forced” to explain.
And this is a shame, because no one on stage is actually doing a bad job. Strong is earnest and smart as Spinoza, and his interactions, such as they are, with the stately Easton hint at a greater poignancy than what’s written in the text. What exactly is the relationship between these two men? We’re left to wonder.
Garrison, too, has a firm grip on the Orwellian character of van Valkenburgh, who bursts out with the evening’s best monologue when his nephew (Michael Izquierdo) questions his tactics. In many ways, it seems Valkenburgh is in a harder position than Spinoza: he’s the middleman between an oppressive government and an intransigent public, both of whom hate him. If that’s the alternative to Spinoza’s fate, where’s the sign-up sheet for martyrdom?
Helmer Walter Bobbie seems to apologize for the play’s shortcomings by directing the actors to telescope almost all their lines — at times you can see them waiting for each other to stop talking.
Like Yasmina Reza’s poorly received “A Spanish Play” last season (staged in Ives’ translation), the entire enterprise is a weird choice for CSC, which literally made its name doing classic theater. Why divert from your mission to do a new play, especially this new play, and why enhance the production with outside money and Grade A creative talent when what it really needs is a workshop?
It would be churlish to suggest that Ives stick to comedy — his wordplay is usually so adroit and his setups so theatrical that “New Jerusalem” is more a disappointment than anything else. Ives’ next play might well be terrific, and so might CSC’s. This intersection of the two talents, though, is baffling.