New Jerusalem at the Classic Stage Company

Friday, December 28th, 2007 | All Things, Arts

At the Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street tonight for the first preview of David Ives’ play, New Jerusalem, which will run through February 3, 2008. The playwright has had an eventful 2007; in addition to staging this debut, Ives wrote his third young adult novel and is currently collecting accolades for his Broadway adaptation of Mark Twain’s previously unproduced 1898 play, Is He Dead?

For his latest work, Ives focuses on the events of July 27, 1656 when a 23-year old Baruch (“Bento”) de Spinoza, was summoned to the Talmud Torah Congregation in Amsterdam to be interrogated for his espousal of positions contrary to Jewish belief. At the convocation of his temple board, a proclamation of kherem (excommunication) was imposed against Spinoza, permanently banishing him from all interactions with people of his faith, and sending the young man into spiritual exile. The historical drama is somewhat of a departure from Ives’s typical comedic one-acts, but raises questions perhaps inspired by his own orthodox Polish-Catholic upbringing, and subsequent training at an all-boys Catholic seminary.

Fortunately for Ives’s creative process, very little is known of Spinoza’s life: a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin, Spinoza lived a brief and modest life as a lens grinder, displaying a general indifference to fortune, fame and positions of power. The majority of his philosophical works were published posthumously, at the expense of an anonymous donor, including his master work, Ethics, in 1677. Spinoza is generally considered among the most significant of the post-Cartesian philosophers; his rationalism laid the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, and he claims Goethe, Hegel and Albert Einstein among those influenced by his views on God and Nature.

Classic Stage Company

Ives’s account of Spinoza’s interrogation plays like a philosophy lesson. As the main tenets of Ethics are formulated and expositioned — rather more briskly than I recall from my forays into Spinoza’s writings at college — the ideas started filling in: the systematic, almost mathematical, attempt to probe the identity of God with Nature, the inseparable relationship between mind and body, the concepts of freedom, causality and predetermination.

Award-winning actor Richard Easton plays the chief rabbi of Amsterdam and Spinoza’s pained mentor in a heralded return to the stage after his appearance in Tom Stoppard’s epic Tony-winning period trilogy, The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center last season. Also featured in the cast are television veterans Fyvush Finkel (Picket Fences, Boston Public) and David Garrison (Married with Children), and Jenn Harris (offering hammy, comic relief as Spinoza’s half-sister Rebekah), Michael Izquierdo and Natalia Payne.

But New Jerusalem really is Spinoza’s show, and Jeremy Strong (last seen on stage at MTC’s Defiance in 2006) commanded our rapt attention as the sensitive, but passionate persecuted philosopher, holding center stage for almost the entire play, including through intermission.

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