[Later this week, I’ll be publishing my report on a performance of David Ives’s new play, Heir Apparent, an adaptation of the 18th-century Le Légataire universel by Jean-François Regnard (1655-1709). I’ve now seen three of Ives’s plays, which I mention in the upcoming post, and I’ve blogged about one of the other two (Venus in Fur, on ROT on 11 July 2011), but the first Ives play I saw, 2008’s New Jerusalem, predated Rick On Theater. Since I’ll be making reference to that play in my Heir Apparent report on 30 April, I’ve decided to raid my archive of pre-blog theater reports and publish the one I wrote about New Jerusalem on 18 February 2008. Readers will note that these pre-ROT reports were a little more casual than the ones I post now. ~Rick]
I was supposed to see David Ives’s New Jerusalem, a première at the Classic Stage Company in the East Village, on Saturday evening, 2 February 2008, the day before it was scheduled to close. At the last minute, I got myself screwed up, however, and I wasn’t able to get to the theater. Diana, my frequent theater companion, saw the play and said it was one I’d have liked, so I got the theater, which had extended the production a week because of excellent reviews (the Times was pretty much a rave; Variety, on the other hand, was the only near pan I read), to exchange my unused seat for one at the matinee on Saturday, 7 February. I haven’t entirely made up my mind about the play, though. Maybe this report will help me sort out my reaction.
Ives is best known around here for adapting scripts (the current “new” Mark Twain play, Is He Dead? is his) and writing librettos for concert versions of old musicals (he’s got several in the Encores! repertoire). I’m not really familiar with his “original” plays, mostly light comedies (Polish Joke, Manhattan Theatre Club, 2003) and one-acts (All in the Timing, Primary Stages, 1993-94). (He’s also a translator: the recent production of Yazmina Reza’s The Spanish Play at CSC in 2007 was his rendition and next season the Williamstown Festival will present his version of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear.) In a way, though, New Jerusalem’s also a kind of adaptation. It plays out the courtroom-style drama of the inquisition at the hands of the Amsterdam authorities and the elders of his synagogue into the alleged atheism of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77). (The full title of the play is New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. I thought those kinds of titles went out with the ’70s! A better title might have been Two Jews, Three Opinions—a line someone uses in the play. I’m just sayin’.)
Clearly Ives has done considerable research into both Spinoza’s life and philosophy, though there’s no indication that he used actual documents—there’s no transcript of the interrogation—to produce the dialogue at the hearing. Nonetheless, New Jerusalem is akin to a documentary play, perhaps more in line with Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (Broadway, 2000-01) which depicts a 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg that was known to have taken place, but whose content was always speculation. (Several reviews made mention of Peter Parnell’s Trumpery, a recent Off-Broadway play about Darwin, but I’ve never seen it so I can’t speak for the parallels. Other events and plays come to mind as antecedents: Putting a man of independent mind on trial for heretical thinking and using religious arguments to attack him sounds like 1955’s Inherit the Wind and the Scopes trial. The Jewish authorities acting on behalf of their gentile overlords to silence an unorthodox radical is reminiscent of the Sanhedrin’s trial of Jesus. Wielding the authority of the church and the threat of excommunication to force an intellectual to recant his threatening new theories parallels the story of Galileo. Accusing a philosopher of corrupting society with his radical ideas is like the trial of Socrates.) Ives’s text does have the ring (or, perhaps clang) of dramatized transcripts melded with philosophical treatises/Talmudic debates—as if someone tried to stage one of Plato’s Dialogues.
(Full disclosure: I once co-wrote one of those “if they had met” scenarios—between Karl Marx and Nikolai Lenin. It was a class project for a Russian-language course so mine was in Russian, but the concept was the same—and it was surely even more stilted.)
New Jerusalem is mostly the revelation of Spinoza’s beliefs and theories (which he hadn’t published at the time of the inquiry) as he defends himself against charges that he’s a dangerous atheist who’s disrupting both the Jewish and Christian societies in Amsterdam. Ives condenses the complex ideas into a little over an hour in the second act; the first is a base-setting discussion of the historical and religious foundations for the Jewish presence in Holland, the rules under which the Jewish community is welcomed in Amsterdam, and the tenets of the acceptable Jewish faith. I’m not even going to try to explain Spinoza’s ideas. Suffice it to say that the young thinker, taking his lead from René Descartes, questioned everything, including free will and the existence of an afterlife. If you’re interested in more, you’ll have to look him up yourself. (Be warned: the Internet will yield over 2½ million hits relating to the philosopher.) Saul Levi Mortera, Amsterdam’s chief rabbi, catechizes his pupil on Moses Maimonides’ 13 “articles of faith,” which Spinoza’s required to rattle off whenever Mortera barks out, “Baruch, what is the second article of faith?” or some such command. (Each time they did this, I was reminded, blasphemously, I’m sure, of Grand Nagus Zek making Quark recite the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.) Mortera and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel, a parnas, a member of the Jewish community’s council of elders, prompt Spinoza to respond in words that demonstrate, they hope, that he’s a traditionally believing Jew, not an atheist or an apostate.
The Amsterdam regent Abraham van Valkenburgh, who in Ives’s version of the event is the power that requires the examination and ultimate sanction—cherem, excommunication from the Jewish community, and exile from Amsterdam—acts as prosecutor and overseer, ultimately eliciting the statements from Spinoza that seem to prove his deviance from the accepted beliefs (the soul is mortal, God and Nature are one, eternity is now, miracles are myths since God/Nature can’t violate its own rules)—as we know he must in the end, since Spinoza was, of course, banished. (In reality, it may have been the Jewish community that took the responsibility on itself out of fear of being expelled from Holland. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived in Holland two generations earlier in flight from the Inquisition. They were welcomed in the Netherlands, but only under certain provisions: they mustn’t try to convert Christians, they couldn’t talk about Christianity or Judaism openly, and they mustn’t disrupt the prevailing Christian society. Otherwise, they could live, work, and worship how and where they pleased.) Spinoza reveals himself to be not an atheist, but a deist, which van Valkenburgh declares is just as dangerous. (Poor Ben Israel, when he sees that Spinoza isn’t going to adhere to the congregation’s beliefs, blurts out in exasperation: “This isn’t heresy, it’s Calvinism! Baruch Spinoza is not a Jew; he’s a Presbyterian!”) All this played out around the large table center stage in the middle of the synagogue’s sanctuary. (The Ark of the Covenant was prominently visible on the rear wall of the set; Ben Israel expressly identified it for van Valkenburgh to be sure we all knew what it was.)
The playwright has, by virtue of the fact that little documentation exists, taken the liberty to mix fact liberally with fiction. (Since the historical record indicates that Spinoza may not even have been present at what was probably a minor proceeding in the back room of the synagogue, Ives had considerable freedom to invent.) The dialogue, of course, is all imagined; but some characters are historical (Rabbi Mortera; Rebekah de Spinoza, the philosopher’s half-sister) and some are fictitious (Van Valkenburgh; Clara Van den Enden, the Christian girl Spinoza loves; Ben Israel). This allows Ives to couch the dialogue in contemporary language and to insert occasional moments of humor (Rebekah excoriates her brother for not appreciating her brisket) as well as to manipulate the characters’ responses to suit his dramaturgical needs. He has invented not only an intellectual/Platonic love interest for Spinoza (historically Spinoza never married but he couldn’t have married a Christian without converting to Christianity), but a friend, the artist Simon de Vries who’s both youthful companion to the serious philosopher and, we discover later, his betrayer to the Amsterdam authorities.
Most of this isn’t troublesome, though I occasionally found the contemporaneity of the language a little forced. (I’ll have something to say about Ives’s convenient character shifts in a bit.) Since I don’t know much about Spinoza’s philosophy (it’s famously difficult and dense), I have to assume Ives has capsulized it accurately, but because I also know he translated it into colloquial 21st-century speech, I did wonder if he hadn’t up-dated the ideas a little, too, as he abridged them. (A confession: I didn’t do any research to determine if the playwright did that or not.) He gives himself an out, though, by having Spinoza, who was only 23 at the time of the inquiry, constantly remind his questioners that he hasn’t worked out all the details of his theories yet. This, along with his feelings for Clara and his friendship with Simon, displayed in a scene near a tavern where Spinoza’d been practicing the drawing Simon has been teaching him, is clearly an effort by Ives not only to show that Spinoza’s a young guy, but an ordinary, if brilliant, fellow.
So much of the interrogation, which makes up the bulk of the two-hour play, proceeds in heady philosophical terms. Spinoza comes off, especially in Jeremy Strong’s portrayal, as a bright grad student showing up his favorite professor. In addition, Ives provides Spinoza, not known for his light wit, an irrepressible funnybone. (To reinforce the sense that Spinoza’s not just a textbook icon, he’s called Bento by the characters who know him; that’s Portuguese for ‘blessed,’ the translation from Hebrew of his given name, Baruch. His books, written in Latin, were published under the name Benedictus de Spinoza. Ives titles the first act of New Jerusalem “Baruch/Bento” and the second “Benedictus.” A small point is made of the meaning of the philosopher’s name—but what isn’t noted, though Jews will see it, is that baruch isn’t just a word that means ‘blessed’; it’s the first word in many Hebrew prayers, called in Yiddish broches, or ‘blessings.’ Ives, who I don’t believe is Jewish, may not have known this, but it resonates nonetheless.)
I guess overall, I’d have to say that Ives did a creditable job translating an intellectual exchange into a stageplay but that the material left him with little chance of doing more than that. Most of the reviews stressed the intellectual rigor of the text, and the content wasn’t uninteresting; but I found myself wishing I could read the script (which isn’t published) because Ives crammed so much philosophy and theology into it that it was hard for a limited mind like mine to grasp it all. (Spinoza was a genius; most of the rest of us aren’t.) To add to this dilemma, director Walter Bobbie kept the dialogue moving at such a pace—can’t let it lag, can’t let a character take a pause to think, don’t let the spectators notice there’s no action; you might lose the audience!—that the difficult ideas went by at quite a clip. Some of the cast seemed almost to be speed-talking at times. (If New Jerusalem had been a tape I was watching at home, I’d have rewound and replayed more than a few moments. What did that guy just say again?) I don’t know about you all, but debating the existence of God and his relationship to nature or the soul’s relationship to the body isn’t something I do too often. Not since college, anyway (and I recall I was drunk or high for most of those sessions, besides). The mental mechanism’s a little rusty and cranky.
Bobbie did an adequate job keeping the play moving. Except for a couple of contiguous scenes that took place on the street outside a tavern (the set wasn’t changed for these locales; the center table served as a pier or waterside curb—Amsterdam’s the Venice of the North, you’ll recall: lots of canals), most of the “action” takes place in the synagogue around this large, square table. This meant that all the talk provided for a static atmosphere, so Bobbie had to find reasons to move the characters around some. That may have accounted for the speed-talking as well: to compensate for the lack of natural movement and action. In addition, CSC is a thrust theater, with audience on three sides of the stage. (We were the assembled congregation and the characters occasionally addressed us as if we were part of the debate. In one rather odd exchange, Rebekah, who’d been sitting in the front row of the audience, strode out onto the stage to confront Baruch, but then turned and made as if she was actually having words with another woman of the community several rows up in the seats. Otherwise, our presence was acknowledged, but not engaged. When van Valkenburgh took off his cloak at the beginning of the play, he walked over to where I was sitting and draped the cloak over the railing in front of me, though he didn’t make any gesture that I was there as he would if it had been real life.) So, to accommodate the three-sided audience and to move the characters about some, there was a lot of pacing and circling the table. I can’t say that Bobbie had other choices, and the cast executed this more than well enough.
Bobbie did make one puzzling decision and I have no idea what it signified or why he chose it. At intermission, all the characters exited the stage as you’d expect—except Spinoza. He went upstage and sat on the little raised platform that led from the main level of the stage up to the wall where the ark was mounted. He sat there in silence, sort of in the attitude of Rodin’s Thinker, mostly motionless from what I could see (he was only a few feet from my seat) while members of the audience milled around, stretching their legs, for the full 15 minutes of the break. I’m at a total loss to explain this behavior—and not one of the critics I read even mentioned it. The play’s intermission did coincide with a declared break in the hearing, so the real-world pause was concurrent with the diegetic one. Was this some kind of extension of the notion that the audience was the congregation of Talmud Torah? But we weren’t playing the congregation—Bobbie may have wanted us to be and the actors may have related to us as if we were, but we didn’t respond. The actors could break the fourth wall and address us when they were in control of the relationship—but inviting us inside the wall, when we were in control, doesn’t work unless we’ve been briefed on the rules of behavior. What would have happened if someone had spoken to “Spinoza”? What would have happened if someone had spoken to Jeremy Strong? Would he have responded in character, like the people who impersonate Colonial residents of Williamsburg or Pilgrims at Plimouth Plantation? (Television, sirrah? I know not of what you speak. Is’t some kind of devil device?) I wonder if Strong could have handled extemporizing Spinoza’s philosophy if someone had tried to interact with him outside the script. I wonder if it ever happened. Not everyone knows or abides by the conventional etiquette of Western theater.
(When van Valkenburgh hung his cloak over my railing, I remembered an incident from back when I was an Off-Off-Broadway actor. In a play in a similarly configured space, the set was the deck of ship. The wheel was down front, within reach of some of the front seats with no barrier separating it from the audience. At one performance, an elderly lady sat in front of the wheel and she reached up and hung her cane on the wheel. I guess she thought that the theater had provided this convenience for her benefit. This being Off-Off-Broadway, the actor who played the captain, when he came on stage and had to steer his ship, simply removed the cane and laid it on the floor in front of the audience. I once also got into an uninvited conversation with a spectator when I was playing Moon in The Real Inspector Hound and was planted in the audience before the show started. Not everyone knows the rules.)
Most of the acting was fine. Richard Easton was superb as Rabbi Mortera, Spinoza’s mentor and teacher, and David Garrison did a nice job keeping van Valkenburgh from seeming a complete anti-Semite and Dutch Reformed Savonarola. Next to Spinoza, Mortera had the most at stake: if his pupil is found to be a disruptive atheist, it’s his own teaching that’s a failure. The younger man had been his surrogate grandson and he’s pained at Baruch’s apparent apostasy and at the choice he’ll be forced to make. I could see Mortera struggling when he was persuaded within his mind by Spinoza’s reasoning even as the rabbi understood he couldn’t accept what he suspected was the truth. As Ben Israel, Yiddish theater vet Fyvush Finkel took a fifth-wheel character and created an endearing one by showing us the fondness he had for young Baruch and his devotion to the community and his bitter and confused disappointment as the philosopher explained ideas that were further and further from the mainstream fundamentalism of his faith.
Michael Izquierdo as Simon made a good drinking buddy for Spinoza, but when he was revealed as the nephew of van Valkenburgh and his spy in Spinoza’s house, he began to shift allegiances quickly and without much motivation—as did Jenn Harris’s Rebekah, whose whole attitude seemed unreasonable as well as changeable. Simon was a young Falstaff to a serious Hal at first, then he was an almost rabid detractor of his friend’s behavior and beliefs, then he spun on a dime (well, a guilder, perhaps) and defended his friend. Rebekah, who resents her father’s having left Baruch his estate and putting her in her brother’s care—historically she apparently did sue Spinoza over the inheritance—stormed into the hearing demanding Baruch be excommunicated, mouthing off frequently to berate him, then switched to his defense suddenly—and briefly—only to return to her first position.
It all seemed very convenient—as if Ives saw that too many characters were ganging up on little ol’ Baruch, so someone had to defend him or the play would end. But even within the text, the vehemence with which the two characters argued whichever stand was at hand at that moment didn’t vary. I put the blame here on both Ives and Bobbie, though I suspect Ives bears the most responsibility. As Baruch Spinoza, Jeremy Strong gave a frequently mannered performance which seemed more like the actor’s own idiosyncrasies than anything he selected for the character. He affected an air of bemused aloofness and his gestures and expressions sometimes seemed like something you’d see in the depiction of an autistic adolescent. (Maybe Strong and Bobbie saw Spinoza as a sort of savant. I don’t buy it, but maybe they did.) The character breaks out into an occasional cough—an unacknowledged sign of the tuberculosis that killed the philosopher when he was only 44—and Strong always seemed self-conscious to me whenever he bent over to do this.
All other aspects of the production were more than adequate, if unremarkable. The costumes, lighting, and set (Anita Yavish, Ken Billington, and John Lee Beatty, respectively) were all perfectly appropriate for their uses. Beatty even modeled his set after a Sephardic synagogue (with the addition of the center table) which resembles a thrust or arena stage—though I wonder how many spectators would know that, even among the Jews. (The oldest congregation in New York City—350 years—is, in fact, Sephardic; but I doubt too many Ashkenazim have visited the Shearith Israel synagogue very often.)
Possibly the most remarkable aspect of the performance is how well Strong, especially, kept all that convoluted philosophy straight. (Would I know if he didn’t?) Easton and Garrison had to do considerable philosophizing also in order to counter Spinoza’s precepts, and I can’t say that any of them sounded as if they didn’t understand what they were saying. I had trouble understanding what they were saying, but that’s a different matter. In the end, though, it probably isn’t all that important to get Spinoza’s concepts, since the conclusion’s a Billy Budd ending anyway. Captain Vere/Rabbi Mortera has to sentence Billy/Baruch to be hanged/excommunicated even if Billy/Baruch’s guilt is mollified by his pure heart/unimpeachable reasoning because the consequences to the fleet/community would be too devastating if he shows leniency. The Captain/Rabbi must condemn Billy/Baruch to secure the welfare and perpetuation of the fleet/community. (Can you follow that? Trust me, it works.)
I am left, however, with one really big question I haven’t been able to answer for myself: What’s it all for? Other than telling this particular story—much of which, in Ives’s account, may be fictional anyway—or exposing the 17th-century Dutch, despite their vaunted tolerance and openness, for crypto-anti-Semites, why write or stage this play? (I bring up my two minimum criteria for what I consider good theater: It must do more than just tell a story; and it must be theatrical, that is, use the unique assets of the live stage as much as possible.) What’s Ives’s point, other than a historical role-play? Dunno. None of the critics I read offered an opinion, either. (The New York Post did make what I think is an invalid connection to the current drive political candidates have to declare their religious faith to court voters.)
Oh, okay—when Simon’s revealed as van Valkenburgh’s spy who has been funneling copies of Spinoza’s notes and letters to the city regents, I muttered under my breath, ‘So, Homeland Security!’ Is Ives commenting on the current tendency by the Bush League and its enablers to silence dissenters by intimidation and the threat of legal sanctions? (Judith Miller, anyone? Joe Wilson? Dr. James Hansen?) Well, aside from the fact that we know this already, it’s not a point New Jerusalem makes very directly, if it makes it at all. Dramaturgs are supposed to ask three questions when they’re advising an artistic director in the selection of the season’s plays: Why this play? Why here? Why now? I don’t know the answers for CSC’s selection of New Jerusalem. (Aside from the fantasy aspects of the hearing, it’s a good text for a high school history, social studies, or civics class role-play or something.)
[I have to add one personal peeve. I went to a matinee, as I said, and the audience, as the common wisdom has it, was mostly old ladies (and a few old men). I mean older than me, of course. Now, I know from my days as an actor that this population changes the audience’s response to a play, but that didn’t trouble me. (Well, not much anyway. I had a guffawer behind me.) What annoyed the hell out of me, and I don’t really understand this, is that everyone, all the women, seemed to be carrying large tote bags—some of them two bags—stuffed to the gunnels. Now, CSC isn’t a large theater—it’s an East Village storefront, with a small lobby now turned over for the most part to an espresso bar (hence, café tables occupying the front of the space). It’s tight when the theater’s full—and this show was sold out. Those damn bags bumped and poked me every time someone moved in that lobby—and no one cared or excused herself! Who brings a suitcase to the theater, for goodness’ sake? What could they possibly need for two hours in the East Village? Doesn’t anyone have any common sense? (Isn’t that the signature line for Shelley Berman’s judge character on TV’s Boston Legal? And he’s dotty!) Anyway, sheeesh!
[I hope everyone will come back to ROT on the 25th for my report on David Ives’s Heir Apparent. And interested readers are encouraged to have a look back at my report on Venus in Fur (11 July 2011).]