By Andrea Braun
Imagine you’re a Jew in Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. You are tolerated in this cosmopolitan city. Likely you’re of Portuguese descent, born of a family who fled the Portuguese Inquisition to find freedom to worship among the Dutch. They call your people conversos, and that’s fine with you because your Iberian identity is still strong in the customs you observe, the names you bear.
And when you see “New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656” at New Jewish Theatre, that is what you become: a part of the group in Temple hearing his trial on charges of being an atheist. He is a young man with weak lungs (well, he coughs once and the head of the parnassum—the governing body of the synagogue—says the condition runs on his mother’s side) but bearing a strong spirit; he is intelligent, intellectually curious and voluble.
Dramatic license is taken because the congregation is not segregated by gender, the language is modern, and much of what happens in based in fact but may not be strictly true. That said, let’s get to it.
Playwright David Ives is known primarily for comedy, but this piece, the play with perhaps the longest title ever, has funny lines but is far from a farce. Ives loves words, and he uses all of them in this two-plus hour debate because walking and talking comprises pretty much all the action here. But, that’s just fine, because this is heady stuff. Eloquent, thoughtful, moving, disturbing—it’s all that and more. Like Spinoza himself says, “Jews invented arguing.”
Rob Riordan gives us a Spinoza who is both likeable and down-to-earth, despite his formidable intellect. His Rabbi Mortera (John Flack) is extravagant in praise of his protege, whom he regards as a son as much as a student, and who, he hopes, will “fill his yarmulke” someday.
The reason Mortera has to defend Spinoza (“Bento” to his intimates) is that he has been charged with atheism, based on rumors going around the community about his behavior in violation of the rules of conduct for Jews, and threatened with excommunication. This is a Very Big Deal for a Jew in this time because if he is found guilty, he will lose his community entirely and be banished.
Representing the Christians as regent of the city and chief interlocutor, is Abraham van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz). He meets with Mortera and convinces the Rabbi to write a note commanding Bento’s presence the following morning. Mortera obeys reluctantly because the code of conduct for Jews is strict. One of the rules is that they are not allowed to speak about religion with Christians, which Spinoza has been doing, at least with his landlord and Latin tutor, Franciscus van den Enden, a defrocked Jesuit who, according to Valkenburgh, “preaches free love.” Spinoza has been seen with van den Enden’s daughter, Clara (Karlie Pinder). In fact, the young people are in love, but know that nothing can come of it because of their religious differences.
Early in the morning, we meet Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio), another Christian, who will become a key part of the proceedings later who is talking with his roommate and best friend, Bento, about art. Simon has given him drawing lessons. After some talk of Rembrandt and sunsets and girls, like young men do. They kid around with each other, Spinoza teasing de Vries about his inability to solve the simplest mathematical problems. Math is very important to Spinoza’s world view. Clara arrives with the summons from Montera, and the real action begins when Spinoza shows up at the temple and Valkenburgh comes at him with guns blazing.
The time shifts are confusing here because we are introduced and charged by Valkenburgh in the very beginning, then flash back to the session with the Rabbi and head parnas of Talmud Torah, Gaspar Rodigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston).
The interrogation begins, and Valkenburgh parades around the single set that looks a bit like a fancy boxing ring (and probably means to because the gloves are off from the beginning) pontificating about Spinoza’s unacceptable behavior to demonstrate his strict interpretation of the laws of the land. Ben Israel is present, but the Rabbi, sickened by what he perceives is his own complicity in this foolishness, is absent. Ultimately, the decision is up to the parnassum anyway.
Simon is also present at his friend’s behest. Valkenburgh talks about how the Jews are lucky to live in Amsterdam what with the forced Conversions and mass burnings that have ensued from the Inquisitions. He goes on about economic troubles, the return of the plague, not saying, but suggesting, that God is angry and it’s probably little Bento’s fault. Or is it perhaps all the Jews? All of us sitting in judgment of Spinoza. Is Valkenburgh talking about us? Could he be, for all his high-minded oratory, anti-Semitic?
Spinoza isn’t taking all this blather very seriously, at least not to hear him talk. He’s funny. At first, his jokes seem to elude the audience, but once we figured out it’s okay to laugh, his one-liners start to land and we warm up to him. Of course, he’s not an atheist. Quite the contrary, as the argument goes on. He believes that God is, well, everything. God isn’t just the creator and master of nature, he IS nature itself.
The Romantic poets of the 19th century and American transcendentalists owe a lot of Spinoza’s posthumously published Ethics, but in this time and this place, his assertions are perceived as heretical. Eventually the Rabbi returns, Clara is questioned, Spinoza’s bitter half-sister Rebekah (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) turns up, and the heat is on.
This is a good, almost great, play. There are a few flaws—the aforementioned timing problems, quite a bit of repetition, and the puzzling character of Rebekah—but overall, the NJT, in its penultimate production under Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer has another winner.
The actors are mostly flawless with Butz and Riordan the MVP’s, the technical elements are fine, and Tim Ocel’s direction is impeccable. New Jerusalem could become dull, but Ocel’s keeping the actors in near-constant motion engages the eye, enhancing the appeal of Ives’ (many) words. The set is by Peter and Margery Spack, lighting design by Jon Ontiveros, and interesting period-nonspecific costumes by Michele Friedman Siler.
“New Jerusalem” will run through April 22 in the JCC’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. Tickets are available online at newjewishtheatre.org or 314-442-3283.
Photo of John Flack and Rob Riordan by Eric Woolsey