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An Islamic warrior-prince has denounced violence and declared a truce in Jerusalem. Christian forces are diligently, if reluctantly, abiding by the agreement, as are the patient, pacifist Jewish members of the community.
Alas, all this is true only on the stage of George Mason University’s TheaterSpace, where the Theater of the First Amendment is presenting a handsomely produced, generally well-acted, but insurmountably clunky adaptation by Paul D’Andrea of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. A call for religious tolerance, peace, and humility, the play couldn’t be more well-intentioned or, of course, timely. But, at least in this version, it couldn’t be much more awkward or wooden, either. It’s a curiosity piece, amounting to an ecumenical religious pageant, with disjointed bits of detective story, courtroom and prison drama, pseudo-Shakespearean comic confusion, tomfoolery, and love story thrown into the mix. The result is a puzzling, shiny-wrapped fruitcake of a historical dramasweet, dense, festive, and pretty much unpalatable.
The 1779 work was a celebration by the German Enlightenment-era Lessing, a deist and a rationalist, of his good friend, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. D’Andreaa George Mason professor who, the program tells us, “teaches courses centered on the civilizing power of the arts”has resurrected the play as part of the university’s ongoing Jerusalem Project, the mission of which is to present “a new model for understanding among diverse groups of people” and to “investigate tolerance, citizenship, and conflict resolution” through a variety of area events and productions. It’s a splendid basis for a civic-education curriculum but a lousy context for a play, which comes across more like a dose of moral medicine from a lectern than drama from a vivid imagination.
Saladin, the Kurdish warrior-prince, declared a three-year truce during the Third Crusades. In Lessing’s tale, Nathan (Mitchell Hébert) is a clever, wealthy but selfless Jewish merchant who becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Saladin (Craig Wallace) and the Catholic patriarch Heraklios (Ralph Cosham).
Nathan has brought up the baptized orphan Recha (Maia DeSanti) as a Jew. This information is leaked by Recha’s loose-lipped caretaker, Daya (Lynnie Raybuck), to a crusader-turned-servant-to-Saladin, Curd von Stauffen (Kyle Prue). Curd, who loves Recha, imprudently reveals the girl’s history to Heraklios, who, through a legal technicality, tries to deprive Nathan of his life and, not coincidentally, his wealth. Heraklios’ right hand, the friar Bonfilio (Morgan Duncan)whose own right hand plays a peculiar symbolic role in the storyis a mysterious figure of shrouded past and improbably relevant knowledge. Also playing an important hinge role in the plot’s unfolding is Al-Hafi (Carlos J. Gonzalez), a whirling dervish who has spun his talents as a thief into those of a statesman in the position of Saladin’s treasureran honor of dubious value, given that Saladin is flat broke. “I should have embezzled,” Al-Hafi says wistfully. “At least then there’d be some money.”
Nathan the Wise might just as well have been dubbed Nathan the Mensch. “I remember what I’ve seen, and I have a pretty good idea of what I don’t know. Is that wise, or is that common sense?” he asks, wisely. Not only is he a savvy businessman, he is the owner of a caravan loaded lavishly on return from a six-month trek to India and elsewhere. He’s also pious, down-to-earth, and generous, giving to the poor, no matter their religion, and trumping would-be robbers in the desert with offerings of fresh-baked bread. He is, in short, a swell guy, though the troubling subtext is that he needs, in effect, to buy off everyone from the robbers to Saladin himself to maintain that reputation.
Hébert plays the role as well as anyone could, leavening his saintliness with a contemporary wit and exasperation, especially toward Daya, a buffoonish figure who pines for her home in Europe. In Hébert’s hands, Nathan is one part Sam Waterston in Crimes and Misdemeanors and one part Jerry Stiller in Seinfeldjust a few aggravations short of shouting, “Serenity now!”
Wallace, as Saladin, is convincingly regal and also mines the part for the princes’s almost obsessive-compulsive adherence to legal hair-splitting. Cosham is a fine, sinister sourpuss as the morally tortured, greedy, and bloodthirsty church patriarch. And Duncan, as Bonfilio, is an intriguing blend of unseemly subservience and mysterious strength.
Raybuck is a weak link in the performance, in a part that seems wrongheaded in conception, anyway. She overplays Daya’s dimwitted clowning in a kind of Borscht Belt manner, which is particularly baffling given that her character makes much of her Christianity. It’s as if an actress had wandered off the set of Fiddler on the Roof into A Man for All Seasons. Gonzalez fares much better in the other laugh role, grounding Al-Hafi’s lofty title with irreverence, street smarts, and a warm camaraderie toward his old acquaintance Nathan. The treasurer’s taffy-stretched explanation to Saladin of the desperate state of the kingdom’s finances is a highlight of the evening.
Prue does his best to embody the brooding valiance of Curd, the feisty, tongue-tied, benighted knight. But the character is such a hopelessly confusing and improbable one that to do it justice one must more or less strut around in a stammering dazewhich Prue pretty much does.
Shining brightest is DeSanti, whose quirky but effective, meditative delivery of Recha’s introspective mulling and love lines concerning Curd wins our heartfelt sympathy. The character is based on Moses Mendelssohn’s sharp-witted daughter, and DeSanti gives the role weight as an homage to intellect as well as grace. The character’s allure stems, also, from Recha’s framing as participant in a romance enjoyed vicariously by Saladin’s sister Sittah (Kimberly Schraf). Schraf shows the empathy beneath the steeliness of this cynical royal, hardened by amorous heartbreak and mourning. Hinting not only at the pained princess’s past but also at D’Andrea’s here largely wasted poetic powers, Sittah confides sadly and eloquently to Recha, “The years slide away olive-oiled with pleasant resentment. Then you are old.”
The show’s real stars are its eye-catching set and colorful costumes. Scenic designer Anne Gibson’s faux-stone flooring serves, amid Oriental carpets and knee-high imperial chess pieces, as Saladin’s palace, but also courtyard, street, prison, and so on. It is surrounded by sturdy forced-perspective façades of Heraklios’ clerical headquarters and, in the distance beyond an ascending stairway, the dome of a mosque, lit in lovely blues and golds by Lisa Ogonowski. Up front, there’s a patch of desert, with real sand. The demanding costuming, by Jelena Vukmirovic, includes the dashing white mantles of the literal caped crusaders, the ornate robe and hydra-headed hats of Saladin, the cylindrical headgear of his dervish courtiers, and the on-high finery of Heraklios.
But cast and crew’s best efforts serve little end. Director Tom Prewitt is unwilling or unable to make the decisions playwright/adapter D’Andrea hasn’t, emphasizing one conflicting mood over the othersnot that that would make for a really satisfying production, anyway. Not convincingly historical but not too satisfying as an allegory, either, neither love story nor comedy, court intrigue nor tragedy, Nathan the Wise isn’t, because its condescension and dramatic hybridity undermine its smug arguments for cultural hybridity. In the end, audience members find their common humanity not in the story’s themes of tolerance and an all-embracing love of mankind, but in that deep, instinctual irritation at being preached at. The harangue of a playwright, it turns out, is just as hard to swallow as that of a narrow-minded cleric. CP