AISLE SAY New York
by David Ives
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Ensemble featuring Jeremy Strong,
Richard Easton and Fyvush Finkel
Classic Stage Company
Reviewed by David Spencer
Well, things often do seem to happen in cycles and waves where art is concerned, so perhaps it isn't surprising that this season has so far seen three plays about history; and at that, three plays in which the condition of “renegade thinking” finds itself at the mercy of establishment suppression (or absorption): Aaron Sorkin's the Farnsworth Invention, Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll and now David Ives' New Jerusalem.
Perhaps the insurgence of such plays is not surprising. With the bush administration having proved itself an ethical and professional disaster, and a new election on the horizon, liberals are smelling blood in the water, victory has become a palpable possibility, no longer merely a desperate hope, and this is the time to create a manifesto for the cause of truth, justice, humanism and world ecology—framed for the new millennium perspective. I don't assert that this is necessarily a conscious decision on the part of any playwright, much less a collective intention, but changing times inspire energies particular to the change, and right now, it would seem, these plays are positioned to shed light on the kind of world we hope to make based on the choices that are coming before us via the power of the vote.
But maybe New Jerusalem tackles this just a bit more head-on than the others (not better, more effectively or preferably, just more directly) because it's specifically about rationalist thinking in contention with both the religious right and those who cooperate with the extremists in the interest of their own survival.
In this case what's being dramatized is no less than the legal proceeding in which it will be judged whether a young man, who would become one of the world's great philosophers, will continue to be tolerated and accepted by Christian law and by his own Jewish brethren in the city that is his home...or if he will be excommunicated. In fact, the play's very subtitle lays out the conflict: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.
In keeping with what I guess must be acknowledged as the latter-day trend, or more accurately the cultural gestalt in dramatizing "old world" historical events, benchmarks, legends and/or people, Ives has turned his back on any pretense of archaicism in the dialogue’s diction and locution to create an impression of worlds past; but rather keeps the talk fluidly colloquial, avoiding only bald anachronism. Which may be best, because, as I say, this is really but a lens through which to view the current world.
Making the drama more moving (also more human and, at times, funnier) than simple direct allegory is that Ives doesn't paint his hero as a noble martyr nor his persecutor as lacking sophistication and a limited amount of mercy. No, Baruch (Jeremy Strong) might almost be described as the adorable town nerd, whose belief in rationalism makes him hard-pressed to believe that others, once enlightened, can possibly cling to irrational thought—though this is never expressed with arrogance or anger, always with sweet reason that further fans the flames of the case against him as waged by Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), a Christian and regent of Amsterdam who, for all his blind righteousness, has pioneered a unique system in Europe allowing Christians and, with certain moderate restrictions, Jews, to coexist. The Jewish officials also presiding include Baruch's mentor, the chief Rabbi of Amsterdam, Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Easton), whose burden is to be both open-minded and pragmatic; and an elder of the congregation, the jovial kibitzer with a serious sense of purpose, Gaspar Rodriques Ben Isreal (Fyvush Finkel). Baruch's generation does not go unheard either: also represented are Clara (Natalia Payne), a Christian girl he loves, and who loves him, both knowing and even accepting that such love must be forever chaste by law; and Baruch's best friend Simon (Michael Izquierdo) who also happens to be nephew to the regent. Interrupting the proceedings at regular intervals is Baruch's sister (Jenn Harris) who has her own less political agenda.
Baruch is on trial for atheism, and the crime of discussing religion with gentiles. Ironically, he is not an atheist, he only holds to a more perfect (and in this case that is not an oxymoron) view of God than holy text sanctions; and he has really discussed only philosophy—religion has inexorably come along for the ride because his friends cannot help but make the connection as they trade ideas with him. But of course what's really on trial is freedom of thought and speech. The audience surrounds the playing area on three sides and is tacitly—yet because we are drawn in, actively—the congregation acting as witness.
In general, director Walter Bobbie has helmed an excellent and as excellently cast production, collaborating with Mr. Ives on a fleetness of delivery and a light touch that somehow make even the most dense of the philosophic arguments trackable with a clarity as beautiful as their verbal formation. If there's any quibble I might make, it's that Fyvush Finkel, grand old Borscht Belt tummler that he is, and Jenn Harris, the go-to gal for funny Jewish women these days, don't quite seem of a texture with the rest of the ensemble. In Mr. Finkel's case, his lack of a true darker nature cants him toward broad declamation rather than a more profound expression of feeling when the role turns serious; in Ms. Harris's, I think it may be the role coaxing the performer to play to the audience (which after a fashion is precisely what Baruch's sister means to do).
But this is a small bit of imperfection in what is otherwise one of the very brightest spots in a very bright season. Already extended at the CSC, New Jerusalem will, I hope, stay even longer still, there or in a compatible venue. Call me a hopeless idealist, but I think as long as plays like this thrive collectively, the leadership of the free world will likewise be voted into the light...