Some shows leave audiences humming a tune on their way out of the theatre. The hum you feel as the lights fall on New Jerusalem is a deeper vibration: the mental buzz that lingers after a wave of big thinking. Mental gymnastics are performed with flair in this invigorating drama, re-mounted at Theater J this month after a hugely successful run in 2010 (you can read the DCTS review of the original production here). Playwright David Ives is orchestrating points of philosophy rather than notes of music, and this team attains his velocity with a crisp, elegant, and better-than-ever production.
We turn back to the year 1656 for this one, but the air in Amsterdam is palpably electric from scene one. Baruch de Spinoza, an ardent young Jewish student of philosophy (Alexander Strain, showing seemingly effortless grace) is passionately vocal about his spiritual quandaries. So entrenched is he in shoring up his burgeoning system of beliefs — about the universe, the spirit, and nature of God — that he doesn’t realize, at first, how much his talking has everyone talking.
Summoned to the synagogue by a seriously irked Christian official (ferociously acted by Lawrence Redmond), Spinoza must confront his kin on some sticky bits of sacred text. The pressure is on our poor boy to topple his tower to God, or face excommunication from his people, his community, and the city.
Ives was the crackling engine behind several of this past season’s hit DC plays, notably The Heir Apparent at Shakespeare Theatre Company and Venus in Fur at The Studio Theatre. He wouldn’t dare call this a comedy — indeed, his aptitude for surmounting greater planes of tension, pathos, and surprise are all showcased here — but New Jerusalem wouldn’t be an Ives play without a huge buoying draught of dry wit. The humor really starts to strike once the irons are hot, and Spinoza’s trial becomes not just a philosophical scuffle but a deeply emotional last chance to hold onto the people he loves. His self-effacing jokes, his coy rebuttals, and his occasional splash of snark kicks what might have been fodder for a merely watchable period courtroom drama into a higher, more heart-pumping battle of the minds.
Director Jeremy Skidmore’s unflinching grasp of the play’s rhythm and tone, coupled with exceptional supporting performances, also help carry the show to success. Colleen Delany, taking over the role of Spinoza’s hot-headed sister Rebekah, is a startling and combustible ingredient, as is Michael Kramer’s erratic and impatient Ben Israel. No less impressive is Michael Tolaydo, who gives a tremendous and heartfelt performance as Mortera, the chief rabbi, a character who over time becomes less certain of changing his star pupil’s convictions and increasingly interested in simply keeping him safe by shutting him up. “What is human life but a deal, and a good deal?” he says, in the grave pleading tone of a father speaking to a son.
Misha Kachman’s handsome stained wood set design, which highlights a steep upstage bank of seats, mirrors the real audience and ups the judicial atmosphere, and Skidmore has actors frequently enter and exit through the house, as well as step out into the aisles to appeal to us directly. Not all shows are enhanced by such integration with the audience, but the civic feel it generates here adds immediacy to the judging of Spinoza’s conclusions — and the humanity of the young man who brought them forth.
“My head is not full of darkness,” Spinoza pleads toward show’s end. “It’s full of light.” Regardless of his fate in the final minutes, he’s right on that point for sure. Many thanks to Theater J for bringing the light back to a fun, gripping, and relevant show — and for another chance to light up our minds in return.
New Jerusalem runs thru April 1, 2012 at Theater J, 1529 Sixteenth Street, NW Washington, DC
New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
by David Ives
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: approx. 2 hrs with one intermission
Related: Theater J is hosting a month long series of discussions, culminating in full day ‘Spinozium’, discourse, debate, and new dramatized closing arguments. Details here.