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The troubles that underlie David Ives’ New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza are as old as history: The biographical drama is set in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam, which was also home to a 20-something tyro philosopher who’d go on to challenge Descartes and inspire Hegel—and to his community of exiled Portuguese Jews, living uneasily in the “free” Dutch provinces after fleeing the Inquisition and finding few other safe harbors open to them. The security of that community is called into question when Spinoza’s ideas about the nature of the divine and the necessity of religion get circulated among a nervous Dutch population already spooked by English adventurism and outbreaks of the plague. Rather than dealing with the heretical philosopher directly, the Calvinist leadership of the great merchant city makes it clear that the Talmud Torah congregation had better bring its errant sheep back to the fold, and fast.
The show, which had a well reviewed off-Broadway production a couple of years back, is getting its first non–New York presentation at Theater J, and it’s still a solid entertainment—a courtroom drama, more or less, driven by dire prosecutorial thunderings and elegant philosophical ripostes. (Also wisecracks: Ives, whose effervescent adaptation of The Liar was featured earlier this season at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is no newbie when it comes to keeping an audience both engaged and amused.)
Check your encyclopaedia if you want more about how things end. What you’ll want to know about the Theater J production in the meantime is that director Jeremy Skidmore stages it quasi-environmentally, folding the audience into the action: You are, willingly or no, a member of the Talmud Torah congregation sitting in judgment on Spinoza. And depending on the energy and the personalities in the room, that may lead to an unexpected contribution or two from the stalls—and an ad-lib in response from the cast.
Which is, by and large, a strong lineup: Alexander Strain, who’s always had a way of projecting cool intelligence onstage, is the poised Spinoza. Too poised? I’m not sure: I wanted more of the moments in which an idea or an emotion sparked behind that collected mien. But then, there are several such moments, and they’re pretty wonderful.
Michael Tolaydo, effortlessly commanding, is the rabbi who’s dumbfounded and then devastated by the new paths his prize pupil is breaking, and who’ll have to make a choice between a kindred mind and the congregation that is his charge. Ethan Bowen stands in for the confused middle, sympathetic to a fellow Jew but scandalized when Spinoza defends his thinking by targeting the very foundations of Judaism. And Lawrence Redmond—boy, has he settled into a magisterial way with villains lately—plays the heavy, an authoritarian to whom Ives gives a surprising moment of passion. This is one bully whose aggression isn’t about what you might assume.
Talky? God, yes. The topic is, well, God—and the universe, and everything. (And no, alas, Spinoza’s answer is not 42.) But Ives is an agile dramatist, and he’s distilled the arguments admirably. Whereas Arena Stage’s recent excursion into the theoretics of Buckminster Fuller had its soporific moments, Theater J’s evening with this older philosopher never seems less than consciousness-raising.
One caveat: Ives has seen fit to punctuate the proceedings with spiteful outbursts from Spinoza’s half-sister, who speaks up from the crowd (and then won’t shut up). Eliza Bell is presumably doing her best, but her lines ring false, both emotionally and dramaturgically. The bulk of the proceedings, though: It’s Inherit the Wind, only snappier and with more jokes about hairsplitting Jews. Your mileage will vary, I imagine, depending on your appetite for erudite theosophical tennis-balling. But I have to tell you: I trudged in feeling a little beat from a long Monday, and I ended up staying for the talk-back.