There might well be a play with a longer, less catchy title than New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza, but if there is, it probably doesn’t hamper itself further by offering meditations on Descartes, Plato, and Aristotle. Playwright David Ives, the gifted writer behind Venus in Fur, The Liar, and The Heir Apparent (and who is currently collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on a musical project), sets himself quite a challenge in New Jerusalem, now playing again at Theater J after it made its regional debut there two years ago. Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher who was excommunicated from the Jewish faith for raising controversial questions about religion, might not immediately sound like the most compelling subject for a piece of modern theater. But in the hands of Ives, his story becomes fierce, fascinating, funny, and deeply moving.
In 1656 Amsterdam, Jews who fled from Portugal were accepted, rather than graciously welcomed, into the fabric of society. Spinoza (a charismatic and thoughtful Alexander Strain), has come to threaten that shaky co-existence by loudly raising questions that threaten Amsterdam’s religious hierarchy. “We are tolerant, but we have our limits,” warns Valkenburg (Lawrence Redmond), a Christian who finds Spinoza’s constant questioning of religious principles to be threatening and downright offensive.
Except far from being a menace to society, Spinoza is one of those geniuses who can contemplate the order of the universe but forget to turn off the oven. Intellectual but impractical, he fails to notice the extent to which his loud ponderings are upsetting the people who matter, and he infuriates them even further by falling in love with a Christian girl, Clara (a graceful Emma Jaster). Before long, Spinoza is summoned to the synagogue by Ben Israel (Michael Kramer) and Rabbi Mortera (Michael Tolaydo) to answer for his sins and offer—if he can—one last defense of his faith.
Jeremy Skidmore directs the production, which benefits from a terrific cast. As Spinoza, Strain is charming and irritating in equal measures—resolutely stubborn when it comes to his ideas and opinions, but naive and touchingly vulnerable as far as dealing with the real world goes. Redmond is brilliantly menacing as his interrogator, drawing grim parallels when he expresses how others might have Spinoza taken away in the night and thrown into a pit. “I have that power, too, and I could do it,” he states calmly.
Skidmore throws some surprises into the mix—the entrance of Colleen Delany as Rebekah, Spinoza’s vicious harridan of a sister, is particularly electrifying—and cast members run out into the audience several times and remain onstage during the intermission, meaning we’re left feeling as much a part of the interrogation as anyone else (and as weakly complicit). When confronted with the fact that he might be excommunicated from his faith and shunned from his community, Spinoza’s interactions with his rabbi and his accuser are mesmerizing to watch. But the production's design elements (or lack thereof) can make the action feel static at times. There’s little sound to speak of, apart from a few awkwardly timed tones towards the end of the show (at first, they sound almost like cell phones going off), and the set consists of a courtroom-like construction of mahogany benches, which, while imposing, doesn’t allow for much flexibility.
Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking and compelling show, and its lofty philosophical comments are made accessible by Ives’s deft hand. The purpose of scripture, Spinoza says at one point, is to “render people obedient and keep them fearful,” while he himself is described as a “philosophical termite eating away at our foundations.” Termite or no, this play offers some hefty ideas to chew over.
New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza is at Theater J through April 1. Tickets ($25 to $60) are available through the theater’s website.