The full-evening length and entire seriousness of David Ives’s Spinoza play, The New Jerusalem, may surprise people who think of Ives as either the creator of the amusing trifles collected in All in the Timing, or as the editor, for the Encores! series, of less-wieldy amusing trifles by nearly every book writer in musical-theater history. Even Ives’s previously produced long plays, like Polish Joke and Don Juan in Chicago, both padded out in sketch-comedy style, wouldn’t prepare you for the depth and gravity of the debate carried on in The New Jerusalem. Almost entirely somber in tone and steeped in lofty ideas, this new play is a striking departure.
The departure isn’t total: Ives’s nimble wit keeps the somber substance from getting draggy; his puckish sense of humor supplies metaphors that nail the high abstractions firmly down to earth. Still, gratifyingly, the constant light touches never injure the play’s gravity; the comic imagery renders the ideas tangible without coarsening them. The script has a few flaws, and Walter Bobbie’s production for Classic Stage Company hobbles it with several bigger ones, but The New Jerusalem‘s substance is strong enough to survive them. It shares with Peter Parnell’s Trumpery, recently at the Atlantic, a strong awareness of the human cost that ideas can exact.
Ives’s subtitle summarizes his play’s action: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. Only one early scene is set outside the synagogue; only the two act openings and a few brief sequences are set outside officialdom’s confrontation with the budding philosopher. Weighty and tense, the situation has significant contemporary parallels. In Ives’s 17th century, Amsterdam’s Jews are largely escapees from Spain and Portugal, where the Inquisition is in full swing. The Dutch, represented onstage by a city regent, Van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), pride themselves on their tolerance, but keep it within strictly defined limits: The Jews may live anywhere in the city, but not have full citizenship; they’re free to practice their religion, but not to discuss it with Christians. Should a Jew be caught preaching heresy or atheism, extremists among the Dutch Reformed burghers might pressure the regents into driving the whole Jewish community out of Amsterdam.
This puts the Jews into a terrifying double bind vis-à-vis the young Spinoza (Jeremy Strong). The embryonic philosopher neglects the spice-importing business he has inherited from his father, preferring to gaze at the landscape while speculating on the nature of God. Worse, he shares his speculations with gentile friends like Simon (Michael Izquierdo), a young painter, and Clara (Natalia Payne), the devout daughter of a local freethinker. But his blend of mystical piety and logical brilliance has also made him a rising star in the Jewish community, the beloved disciple of its leader, Rabbi Mortera (Richard Easton).
Jews revere learning as the pathway to God, but Spinoza’s ever-questioning intellect has led him to a definition of God, not yet fully formulated, that sets off alarm signals for Jews and Christians alike. As Ives explicates it, in the course of the evening’s densely written, provocative give-and-take, Spinoza’s view dissolves the anthropomorphic God of monotheistic tradition into an omnipresent force, permeating the universe, that allows human beings and all other life forms to follow the paths laid out for them to their natural destiny, predetermined not by some external judgment but by their own innate essence.
As expressions of faith go, this locates Spinoza in some highly modern locale on the road to existentialism. Questioning all moral certainties, it opens the door, as Spinoza is often said to have done, to Enlightenment thought and all the challenges it spawned to religious dogma, as well as to the new faith in scientific fact that energized the great discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries, ultimately provoking the bitter contentions that still dog American politics today. Though few of our right wing’s current hot-button issues are adumbrated, the matters debated in The New Jerusalem lie at the core of them all. It’s theocracy versus universalist science, a Reformation-era prequel to the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind with a chilling extra touch of proto-Nazism: Either the Jews will expel Spinoza as a heretic, or Amsterdam will expel the Jews.
Secure in his intellectual grasp of this material, Ives sometimes displays visible jitters about laying it out for American playgoers, not famous for their love of philosophical debate onstage. Both exposition and explication occasionally get laid on thickly, to make sure we get the point. Spinoza’s sister Rebecca (Jenn Harris) is dragged in, clumsily, to interrupt the debate with shrill attempts at comic relief. Though few rituals are grimmer than the excommunication toward which the evening builds, Ives lets the intelligent talk flow casually, with a startling and sometimes irritating lack of decorum, synagogic or otherwise, as if the characters were chatting about God over coffee instead of weighing the fate of a man’s whole life and thought.
Still, the sheer brainy delight of Ives’s script, and its gripping subject, could slide it easily past these lesser obstacles if only Walter Bobbie’s production were more apt for the task. Bobbie stages the event lucidly enough, but his casting cracks at the generation gap. Among the elders, Garrison creates a solid, nuanced authority figure; Fyvush Finkel, a master of vaudeville shtick puzzlingly handed the almost wholly solemn role of a synagogue official, hews to the solemnity with resolute professionalism; as the rabbi, stern, loving, desperate, and heartbroken by his prize pupil’s apostasy, Easton is nothing short of superb. But then come the kids. Izquierdo and Payne, as the goyim, are merely bland, pleasant-looking juveniles. But Payne, unconvincing and unfunny, worsens Bobbie’s worst directorial lapse, laboriously stylizing her interruptions. And Strong, apparently instructed to avoid melodrama, underplays Spinoza’s fiery, challenging rhetoric to the point where you can almost watch it disappear. Before it vanishes, though, we learn enough to sense both the urgent bigness of Ives’s subject and the power with which he’s captured it.
The 39 Steps, though a piece of utter fluff, has its little existentialist moment too, when the hero, Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards), sits alone, wondering whether there’s any purpose or meaning to his empty life. This, however, is probably just another piece of modernist mockery, like both the rest of the performance and the 1935 Hitchcock film that it simultaneously replays and spoofs. A chance encounter with a woman will soon fill Hannay’s empty life with foreign spies, hair’s-breadth escapes, handcuffs, love, and everything else from Scottish sheep to music-hall mentalists.
It’s all piffle, and what it’s doing on a nonprofit theater’s roster might usefully raise some eyebrows, but it’s harmlessly amusing piffle. As staged by Maria Aitken, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation adds a little dimension to the spoofery with two concurrent lines of running gags: helpless-shrug jokes on what film can do that theater can’t, and parallel jokes celebrating theater’s ability to do more with less. Edwards, his jaw outthrust in an I’m-so-handsome smirk, catches the parodic tone precisely; Jennifer Ferrin, as the women in his life, sometimes overshoots it, probably distracted by the dizzying skill of Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who play everybody else with fiendish facility.