In my last performance report (“Bright Star,” 11 April), I started with a list of things of which I’m not a fan. (“I think more reviewers should make their predispositions clear the way you do!” declared my friend Kirk.) This time, I’m going to go in the opposite direction: I’ve been a fan of F. Murray Abraham for a long time—I can’t even remember the first time I saw him on stage (on screen, the first time I noticed him was as Antonio Salieri in the 1984 film version of Amadeus.) I think he’s one of our best actors, especially on the stage—and I got to tell him I think so once when I met him in a supermarket in the Village. I also wrote his biographical article in the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1993). (My only posted play report other than this one that features Abraham is The Merchant of Venice in which he played Shylock at the Theatre for a New Audience in 2007, published here on 28 February 2011.)
So when I saw that the Classic Stage Company was going to mount Nathan the Wise with Abraham in the lead, I made a note in my calendar to try to get seats as soon as non-subscriber tickets went on sale. I tried to do the same thing a few years ago when CSC staged Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo starring Abraham in the title role, but didn’t get to the box office soon enough and there were no seats left, so this time I went as soon as I could on the first day of availability with happier results. So on Friday, 15 April, Diana, my usual theater companion, and I met at CSC’s 13th Street theater in the East Village for the evening performance of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th-century German classic. I couldn’t be happier that we did.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) was a writer, dramatist, philosopher, and critic of art and theater during the German Enlightenment (Die Aufklärung, ca. 1720-1785). Born in 1729 in Kamenz, Saxony, the son of a Lutheran minister, he was very interested in theology, which he studied at the University of Leipzig. This affinity led him to a strong belief in the importance of religious tolerance. Lessing also worked as a critic, an essayist, and a librarian and later in his life, he received a degree in medicine. While his most famous work, Nathan the Wise, focuses on religious tolerance, Lessing was known for his wit and his earliest plays were comedies. Drawing inspiration from Roman comic playwright Plautus and others, Lessing wrote satires addressing human weaknesses such as The Young Scholar, his first produced play (written when he was still 18), The Old Maid, and The Misogynist (all staged in 1748). (Another early comedy, The Jews, 1749, was a blatant condemnation of “the disgraceful oppression” of German Jews by Christians. One review of the play rejected it as “improbable because a Jew could not be upright and noble.” Nathan the Wise was Lessing’s response to this criticism.) Around this time, young Lessing made the acquaintance of the great French writer Voltaire (1694-1778), a guest of the Prussian court, who employed the nascent German writer to translate some books into French for him. The association didn’t last long because Lessing found himself disagreeing with Voltaire’s advice about playwriting.
As a result of his rejection of the Frenchman’s counsel, the young writer made great contributions to the development of middle-class German drama with his plays Miss Sara Sampson (1755) and Emilia Galotti (1772). Lessing is widely considered the father of dramaturgy, the theater profession which serves as a resource for playwrights or directors on such areas as the play’s historical or regional context and the thematic consistency and stageworthiness of the text. He served as a dramaturg at the Hamburg National Theatre—really the in-house critic, which Lessing called a “dramatic judge,” who gave feedback to the company before a production played before an audience—publishing the seminal work in the field, Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767-69). He pioneered Ideendrama, the drama of ideas, rejecting Voltaire’s classic French approach of emphasizing the characters’ actions, and placing the main focus on the play’s central themes. (Voltaire and his literary supporters subsequently slandered Lessing, leaving him an outsider in the world of letters during his lifetime.) The final decade of Lessing’s life was fraught with personal hardships and tragedies: his health began to fail and he lived a lonely life; he married relatively late, in 1776, and his wife died in 1778 giving birth to their son, who only lived a short while. He himself died suddenly, alone and poor, on a trip to the city of Braunschweig (Brunswick) at the age of 52.
Lessing completed the first draft of Nathan der Weise in 1778. The firm of C. F. Voss published it in Berlin in 1779. The Berliner Theater in Berlin presented the first performance of the play on 14 April 1783, two years after Lessing had died; the dramatist never saw Nathan performed. That performance is estimated to have lasted 4½ hours; in 1801, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) made an adaptation that streamlined the discursive original down to under four hours. (It’s on Schiller’s version that Edward Kemp has based his 2003 adaptation that Brian Kulick, CSC’s artistic director, used for the production I saw.) Originally written in Shakespearean blank verse (iambic pentameter)—Lessing was an admirer of Shakespeare and urged other writers to imitate the English writer’s format—Kemp’s English version is in prose, some of it approaching contemporary speech. The play’s a didactic work that preaches harmony and tolerance among adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—and, implicitly, all religions. (A great deal of what Schiller trimmed were long passages of philosophical and theological debate. Kemp followed in Schiller’s footsteps, cutting a few more windy passages and putting the entire script through what he called “a process of ‘compression.’” He also rearranged some of the scenes, or parts of scenes, in the second half of the play. The CSC production runs two hours and five minutes with one intermission.)
Shortly before Lessing wrote Nathan the Wise, Johann Melchior Goeze (1717-86), the strict leader of the Lutheran church in Hamburg, wrote against Lessing and other Enlightenment thinkers for their unorthodox theological and moral views. Lessing responded with a series of pamphlets assailing Goeze for what the playwright considered narrow-mindedness. After supporters of Goeze persuaded the ruler of the Duchy of Braunschweig, where the dramatist was then librarian of the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel, to prohibit Lessing from writing on religion, he composed Nathan the Wise to continue his argument against intolerance. (Braunschweig was the name of both a duchy and a city, the seat of the ducal court. The town of Wolfenbüttel had been the ducal seat until 1753.) In the play, the Patriarch, the head of the Christian church in Jerusalem, represents Goeze. (Lessing modeled Nathan on his lifelong friend, the eminent German-Jewish philosopher and writer Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-86. Mendelssohn, grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, helped Jews integrate into German society and his reputation as a thinker earned him the sobriquet, the “German Socrates.”)
Since Nathan the Wise was published in 1779, it has caused controversy with every production. As an Enlightenment thinker, Lessing aimed to spread humanism and tolerance and the plot of Nathan, popular for over two hundred years, has found relevance through the ages. The play’s message of equality among Muslims, Jews, and Christians led the Catholic Church to ban it. (Much of what Schilling excised were explicitly anti-Christian passages. Nonetheless, the closest thing to a villain in Nathan is the Patriarch. Saladin, the great enemy of the Christian Crusaders, is depicted as merciful and generous to a fault—generally believed to be historically true. Except for the Patriarch, anyone else who harbors a prejudice—the Templar, Sittah, Daya—does a reversal by the play’s end.) Lessing had expected no less, having already faced bans on his writing earlier in his lifetime. Despite the bans, the play was popular across Europe. In Nazi Germany, when Jewish artists were forbidden to work before the public, the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Culture Association of German Jews) was formed to allow them to perform for exclusively Jewish audiences; Nathan der Weise was the first play presented by this organization, the only time it was performed in Germany until the end of World War II. (Nathan der Weise was also the first play to be produced in Germany after the war—in 1945, four months after VE Day, at the Deutsches Theater in what would become East Berlin.)
German film director Manfred Nolan made the first and only movie version of Nathan der Weise, released in 1922. Intended to shed light on how pointless World War I had been, it was a hit except in Bavaria, the birthplace of the National Socialist Party, which labeled it “Jewish propaganda” and threatened theater-owners who tried to show it. Nolan described the movie as a plea for humanity, but with the rise of Nazi Germany, a Jewish title character and the plot endorsing tolerance for groups including Jews led the German authorities to destroy the film and ban it from movie theaters. (Believed lost forever, a copy was rediscovered in Moscow in 1996.)
English translations have allowed for many productions in the United States and England; the first of these translations was by William Taylor, performed in London in 1805. For nearly 50 years afterward, though, Nathan was neglected, until 1860 when a well-received revival of the play was mounted in London, sparking a steady flow of productions that continues to this day. In 1967, director Julius Gellner’s version of the play at the Mermaid Theater in London enjoyed a successful run lasting over a year. In 2002, a new translation and adaptation by Gisela and Paul D'Andrea was produced at the Theater of the First Amendment in Washington, D.C.; it was nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award (of Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards) for Outstanding New Play. Kemp made his translation/adaptation in 2003 at the behest of Steven Pimlott, who directed it at the Minerva Theatre for the Chichester Festival Theatre in the U.K. The version was remounted at the Hempstead Theatre in London in 2005 with Anthony Clark at the helm. In New York, CSC’s staging is the first Off-Broadway, but there was a short-lived run on Broadway in 1942. Lasting only 28 performances, the production was produced by Erwin Piscator and directed by James Light, with Herbert Berghof as Nathan. The CSC production, staged by Brian Kulick (in his last directing gig at CSC after 13 years as artistic director), began performances on 24 March and opened on 13 April; it’s scheduled to close on 1 May.
The play’s set in Jerusalem in 1192, during a respite in fighting between Muslims and Christian Crusaders. The Muslim forces under Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria (1137-93; reigned from 1174-93), had captured the cities of Acre and Jerusalem in 1187. Armies under King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart, 1157-99; reigned 1189-99) and other Christian leaders recaptured Acre in July 1191 during the Third Crusade (1189-92). After his allies—Leopold V, Duke of Austria (Leopold the Virtuous, 1157-94; reigned 1177-94), and Philip II, King of France (Philip Augustus, 1165-1223; reigned 1180-1223)—left the Holy Land in 1191, Richard continued to advance, defeating Saladin every time they fought and taking key cities along the Mediterranean coast. But in September 1192, Richard and Saladin signed the Treaty of Ramla that left Jerusalem under Muslim control and Cyprus and the coastal cities under Crusader control. The treaty granted Christian pilgrims the right to visit holy places. Nathan the Wise takes place during this uneasy peace, which lasted until the Fourth Crusade (1202-04).
(Mentioned in Nathan are some sites of Crusader battles. The Templar says he was captured at Tebnin, a city in Syria [now part of Lebanon] held by the Christians until 1187 when Saladin’s forces retook it and took many defenders prisoners. The knight also reveals that his uncle, also a Templar, was killed in Gaza, the city in Palestine that was captured, also in 1187, by Saladin, who destroyed the city’s fortifications in 1191. Later, the lay brother tells Nathan that the knight he served, who’d given him the baby Rachel, died in Ascalon [Ashkelon in modern Israel], on the border between Egypt and the Crusader Kingdom. The Christian knights took Ascalon in 1099, during the First Crusade [1096-99], and then lost it to Saladin in 1187, but during the years in between, the city was the site of continuous battles and sieges. The Philistine city Gath—home of biblical Goliath—where Nathan’s family was slaughtered, was already a ruin by Crusader times, but the Christian knights built a fortress on the site as part of a defensive ring around Muslim-held Ascalon. I found no record of a massacre of Jews there, however. I also found no appropriate town named Darun, where the lay brother handed Rachel to Nathan, in the Holy Land; villages in Persia and modern-day Bangladesh don’t seem likely.)
As the play opens, Nathan (F. Murray Abraham), a Jewish merchant, returns home from a trading and debt-collecting journey to learn that his daughter, Rachel (Erin Neufer), was saved from a fire by a young German Knight Templar, a captive whom Saladin spared because he resembles the Sultan’s late brother. (The Knights Templar were a highly trained Christian military order that protected pilgrims to the Holy Land and fought its Muslim occupiers. The organization’s members, who didn’t marry, are often called simply Templars.) Rachel believes that the knight is an angel—illustrated by the cast in the most inventive bit of staging in the production—but Nathan persuades her that he’s mortal. Nathan finds the Templar (Stark Sands) to thank him, but the knight scorns Jews. Nathan asks, “Must Jews and Christians be always Jews and Christians and only humans afterwards? Or like me will you stand here and say it is enough to be a man?” The Templar takes Nathan’s hand in friendship.
In Kemp’s adaptation, the play isn’t divided into acts, but rather 11 scenes. At CSC, the intermission comes between scenes five and six. As the audience returns to our seats, the actors playing the two male Muslim characters Al-Hafi (George Abud) and Saladin (Austin Durant) kneel together center stage on prayer rugs and say their daily prayers in Arabic, a sequence that, like the prologue, also isn’t in Kemp’s text.
On the advice of Al-Hafi, the Sultan’s household treasurer and Nathan’s chess-playing friend, Saladin summons Nathan to ask for a loan, but decides to test the merchant’s vaunted wisdom first. (The epithet given Nathan in the play’s title, ‘Wise,’ is probably Lessing’s rendition of the honorific Jewish title Reb or Rebbe, used to designate respected and trusted members of the community in the centuries before Rabbi came to mean an ordained clergyman.) Saladin asks Nathan which is the true faith: Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Nathan replies by telling the Sultan the “Ring Parable”:
A magic ring that can render its owner loved by people and God has been passed from father to his favorite son for generations. When the ring was handed down to a father with three sons whom he loved equally, he promised it to each one. To keep his promise, the father had two exact replicas of the original ring made and on his deathbed gave one ring to each son. The brothers “haggle, argue, and fight” over who owned the real ring and then took the quarrel to court. The judge advised each son to believe that his ring was the original and to live in such a way that his ring’s power could prove true, to love one another as their father had.
Nathan compares this parable to religion, explaining that we all live by the faith we’ve learned from those we trusted. Saladin is impressed by the story and calls Nathan his friend. Meanwhile, the Templar has fallen in love with Rachel. He asks Nathan if he can marry Rachel but Nathan tells him to wait and the knight thinks Nathan is rejecting him. He tells Daya (Caroline Lagerfelt), Rachel’s companion who’s Christian, and she reveals a secret that even Rachel doesn’t know: Rachel is only Nathan’s adopted daughter; she is, in fact, a Christian. The Templar nearly gets Nathan into trouble with the Patriarch of Jerusalem (Lagerfelt, in an odd bit of double-casting) when the knight asks a “hypothetical” question, for raising a Christian as a Jew is a crime for which Nathan could be burned at the stake.
The Patriarch, guessing about whom the Templar was talking, sends a lay brother (John Christopher Jones) to spy on Nathan. The brother, however, turns out to be the former soldier who turned the infant Rachel over to Nathan 18 years earlier when the knight he served was killed and his wife had died in childbirth. What the brother didn’t know, Nathan explains, is that on the day before Rachel was brought to him, his own wife and seven sons had been killed by Crusaders and though Nathan had sworn eternal hatred for Christians, when he held the baby girl, he immediately loved her as the return of one of “the seven.”
In the end, Nathan untangles several twists. When the Templar told Nathan his name, the merchant had realized something and confirmed his suspicions with the lay brother and a prayer book the brother found in the pocket of Rachel’s dead father. It turns out that the Templar is really Rachel’s brother and that their father, Nathan’s friend, was actually a Muslim forced to take a German name in order to marry a Christian. The man was in actuality the Sultan’s lost brother, so the Templar and Rachel are Saladin’s nephew and niece. In addition to this mélange of faiths and ethnicities with a common bond of family and love, Lessing wove into the story several others to make his point about tolerance and understanding: Nathan’s best friend, Al-Hafi, is a dervish, a Muslim ascetic, and Rachel’s companion, Daya, is Christian. Saladin also has a sister, Sittah (Shiva Kalaiselvan), who converted in order to marry a Christian—though she’s not especially happy about it. As contrived and melodramatic as all this sounds, it’s integral to Lessing’s theme: we’re all brothers and sisters—a message that was certainly bold in the 18th century, even during the Enlightenment. (This ecumenism was one of the notions for which Goeze assailed Lessing.) It’s certainly lost on many of today’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and, I daresay, adherents of several other world faiths).
The show’s scenic design, by Tony Straiges, is very simple, but effective. CSC’s stage is a thrust with the playing area level with the floor. As we enter, walking around the periphery of the stage to get to our seats, we can examine the pre-set: the floor is strewn with Persian rugs, one of which is still rolled up; some large pillows for sitting are scattered around; a chess board, set for a game, sits on one rug and a scimitar lies on another nearby. About a half dozen Near Eastern brass lamps hang from the fly space, Ten plain wooden chairs are lined up just below the upstage wall. There’s no other furniture and the basic décor never changes. On the upstage wall is an enlarged black-and-white photograph of a bombed-out street in some Syrian or Iraqi town, Staiges’s and Kulick’s literal way “to sharpen some of the connections between the Jerusalem of 1192 and the Middle East of” today, as Kemp explained he intended his adaptation to do. This is greatly aided by Joe Novak’s lighting and Matt Stine’s soundscape.
In the house, at the ends of the front row seats, are one or two folding canvas stools on which we are admonished by the ushers not to put anything. We’ll soon find out that the cast seldom leaves the theater and when an actor is “off stage,” he or she sits either in a chair on stage or on a stool in the house. This was an element in Kulick’s conceit that his production of Nathan the Wise is a story being told by a group of enactors. We aren’t watching life unfold but the reenactment of a fable or parable meant to teach us a moral lesson. The actors in Kulick’s cast aren’t portraying actual people named Nathan or Saladin or Rachel, but other performers or storytellers who’re representing (or presenting if you want to get technical about it) these characters. Kemp even says that “the play is a kind of fable” and that Lessing “put a ‘fable-like’ aura around the action” of Nathan the Wise.
In a preamble Kulick added to Kemp’s text, the cast enters at the beginning of the performance, dressed in contemporary “street clothes” and begins haranguing one another in three different languages—German, Hebrew, and Arabic—like a miniature Tower of Babel. An Arabic text is projected over the rear-wall photo. Then Abraham quiets the cacophony by reminding his companions that they “have a story to tell,” as they help each other don white robes or tunics over their ordinary dress that will be each character’s identifying garb for the story enactment. These costumes, designed by Anita Yavich, are decorated with writing: the Muslim characters all wear robes with Arabic script, the Jews have Hebrew writing, and the Christians German or Latin (I couldn’t get a clear enough view of them to be sure as it was inscribed in medieval script). Some of the writing is arranged in a pattern: the Templar’s tabard had the knights’ red cross formed by tiny letters; Nathan and Rachel’s lettering was arranged in what looked to me like a menorah, which is the oldest symbol of Judaism going far back before the well-known Star of David, a very modern device, was adopted. (Today, the seven-branched candelabrum is the symbol of the city of Jerusalem; the seats in Israel’s Knesset, its parliament, are arranged in the form of the menorah.) I have to think all this was a deliberate design element, Yavich’s contribution to the storytelling conceit.
This approach, the twice-removed enactment of Lessing’s tale, might have been necessitated by a feature of Kemp’s translation and also might explain a characteristic of the company’s performance. I said earlier that some of Kemp’s prose approached contemporary speech, clearly not what 12th-century (or even 18th-century) characters would use if they spoke English. So perhaps to justify this apparent anachronism, Kulick devised this idea of presenting the play as a story being acted out by a group of players, providing them with permission to be a touch more modern than they might if they were doing a straight classic play. This could also explain why the cast, including Abraham, all seemed to be playing with subdued energy, almost casually sometimes. If the language is faux-contemporary, then the behavior might fall into that rhythm as well since the performers aren’t trying to be the medieval figures, coping with all the emotion-laden facts of their lives, but actors recounting a fable. I believe it’s a Brechtian technique devised by Kulick to distance the spectators from the action so that we can make thoughtful comparisons to the current conditions in the Middle East—not just to the bloody fighting and destruction represented by the photo backdrop, but to the status of Arabs in Israel, the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, the plight of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey (it’s interesting to note, by the way, that Saladin was a Kurd, not an Arab), and the constant infighting among Muslim sects like the Sunni, Shia, Wahhabis, and Yazidis. As Abraham continues his admonition about their story: “It happened long ago, but it might be worth hearing today.”
In any case, the acting is less bombastic than I would have imagined for a period classic like Nathan—and I don’t mean that as a complaint. The most “modern” performance comes from Stark Sands as the Templar. (His “street” dress, by the way, includes military combat boots with black trousers with the legs bloused as if his first persona were a special-forces warrior—another reference to current conditions in the Middle East, I presume.) Sands looks very young, about a decade younger than he really is, and his performance comes off as a willful post-adolescent rather than the confused and lovelorn soldier the story makes him. I haven’t seen any of his previous work, so I don’t know if this is habitual or if he selected this, with Kulick’s guidance, for Nathan, but of all the actors, he’s the least persuasive. Most of the characters make mercurial changes of attitude, going from animosity (or at least skepticism) to bosom friendship in an instant, and Sands accomplishes this no less believably than any of his castmates, but his other scenes have less depth and truthfulness than the other characters’, and if this is an aspect of the storytelling approach, Sands takes it too far.
Even Abraham’s Nathan is curiously unemotional—especially considering the position he’s in for most of the play. He arrives in Jerusalem to find that his house burned down and that his beloved Rachel was nearly killed; he soon suspects that his daughter’s savior is not who he presents himself to be, but someone whose existence could upend Nathan’s happy home; he’s threatened with exposure for a transgression the Church has decreed would cost him his life. Yet Abraham remains calm and rational throughout. Compared to his Shylock nine years ago, this Nathan is cold-blooded. (Granted, Merchant is a tragedy and Nathan decidedly isn’t—but the characters can’t know that before it all ends.) Austin Durant’s Saladin, a benevolent and even jovial characterization, doesn’t face quite the dire fates that Nathan does, but he’s going broke due to his profligate generosity and his financial relief keeps being delayed. Yet he’s not in the least worried. Nor is he concerned about the Crusader armies out to drive him from the Holy Land and kill him—after all, that’s how he got hold of the Templar to begin with, and he’s already lost his beloved brother. Yet he engages in philosophical debates with Nathan and deliberately loses at chess to Sittah so he can give her money he doesn’t have.
The most emotional performances come from George Abud’s Al-Hafi, who’s played as an excitable fellow, Erin Neufer’s Rachel, a teenager in love, and Lagerfelt’s Daya, who’s anxious to get back home to Switzerland and will do almost anything to make that happen—even betray her kind and generous employer. The contrast can seem so disparate as to be almost unbelievable. It’s hard to fault the actors, though, since the problem is so evenly distributed, so I lay the responsibility on Kulick.
All told, the entire cast, with the possible exception of John Christopher Jones’s sincere and honest lay brother, is remarkably cool and unemotional, and I took it that this is the storytelling approach. (There’s a great deal of storytelling in the play, so the actors are depicting enactors telling a story about people who constantly tell stories. Do you get that?) It distances the whole production from the spectators a little too much to engage us—at least it did me. In a way, I don’t feel as if I actually saw a performance of Nathan the Wise, but rather someone telling me the story of Nathan the Wise. It wasn’t entirely satisfying—though not completely alienating, either.
Turning to the published reviews, I see that the website Show-Score tallied 24 reviewers and reports that 71% were positive, with only 12% negative. (17% of the reviews were mixed.) The average score on Show-Score was 69 (out of 100, I presume). Newsday’s Linda Winer described Kemp’s translation as “lucid and engrossing” and said that Kulick’s production “combines straightforward storytelling with the otherworldly charm of a fable.” Winer praised Abraham’s “calm, tender humanism” in contrast to his more usual theatricality, and deemed Neufer’s Rachel “lyrical” and Sands’s Templar “impressively ardent.” In the end, the Newsday reviewer found CSC’s Nathan “exactly what . . . this theater dedicated to re-imagining classical repertory for modern audiences should do.” In amNewYork Matt Windman, in contrast, found the production “bare and unexciting” that “doesn’t make a strong case for the German play, which mostly resembles an antiquated comedy full of slow exposition and surprise revelations.” Of the performances, Windman asserted, “Abraham appears in a jovial mood, full of good humor,” unlike his Salieri or Shylock, and “Sands . . . gives a one-dimensional performance that is far too aggressive in tone.” Elisabeth Vincentelli pretty much dismissed the revival in a short paragraph in an omnibus column in the New York Post, praising CSC for doing the “obscure” play, but adding, “If only the show were a little more exciting.” Kulick’s production of “this fable-like” play “moves at a sluggish pace,” Vincentelli asserted; though Abraham’s “thoughtfully sober” performance deserved plaudits, “‘Nathan’ could have used less solemnity and more oomph.”
Lessing’s play has “timeless urgency, but sags under a convoluted plot,” wrote Joe Dziemianowicz in New York’s Daily News, but Kulick’s “spare, well-acted revival plays up the strengths.” Despite the “uniformly fine” cast, with special kudos for Abraham’s “ wry, fiery and smart” Nathan, the play’s “ending feels dashed off.” In the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood reported that in the first half of Nathan the Wise, “I found myself listing toward boredom,” but as the second part began, “the play grows increasingly engrossing” and “proves to be a moving story that speaks . . . to conflicts that roil the world today.” The Timesman generally praised Kemp’s translation (which the reviewer rightly noted is “more of an adaptation”), but still found, “There is no small measure of pontifical speechifying.” Of Kulick’s staging, Isherwood complained about the seating of the “off-stage” actors in that upstage row of chairs, which he found “a slightly deadening presence that smacks vaguely of the lecture hall.” The references to today’s Middle East, most notably the rear-wall photo, the Times review-writer judged were emphasized “a little heavily.” Isherwood wrote that “the cast is mostly good” (he found that Neufer’s Rachel “strikes a somewhat jarring contemporary note and gets a little shrill”), with praise for Abraham (“quietly intense, persuasive”), Lagerfelt (“fervent but conflicted” as Daya), and Sands (“ardent”). The reviewer noted that “the almost melodramatic turns of the plot are integral to the play’s central theme,” even as some “can be seen looming in the distance, prominent as a caravan of camels”; however, he still enjoyed “the unfolding of the story,” which “is both a thoughtful (if sometimes preachy) exploration of mankind’s seeming inability to shed itself of culturally embedded prejudices, and a savory drama.”
The reviewer for the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” found Nathan’s second part, beginning with the “Ring Parable,” “more successful” than the first, even with the “flurry of revelations” that “amusingly link” most of the play’s characters. With a central performance by the “forthright, thoughtful, and immensely clever” Abraham and “a robust, sympathetic” turn by Durant “that provides a pleasing counterpoint to Abraham’s,” Kulick’s revival “is a little bit Shakespeare, a little bit Scheherazade, and a little bit modern allegory, not laid on too thick.” Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman called CSC’s Nathan the Wise “an elegant and apt parting gift [a reference to Kulick’s departure from the company at the end of the season] that sums up much of his approach to the company over the years: Thoughtful and sincere, it combines a dramaturg’s love of theater history with a yen to connect today’s headlines to yesterday’s footnotes.” While Kulick’s tie to the modern Middle East “comes off more as a concept than a vision,” “the play is gently engaging on its own terms.” The “marvelous” Abraham “brings worldly wit to his early scenes and Biblical fire to his harrowing climactic monologue,” Sands is “mercurial,” and Abud and Jones provide “tasty bits.” Feldman found the first act “discursive,” but the second is “suspenseful” and the man from TONY thought that Kulick directed with a “judicious highlighter to a worthy text, and the result is a virtuous envoi.”
On the website Stage Buddy, Mark Dundas Wood had trouble with Lessing’s script, feeling that it “might work better as closet drama” since the attraction “is not Lessing’s storytelling prowess.” Kemp’s translation and Kulick’s staging aim “to make the play accessible to 21st-century audiences,” observed Wood, with assistance from Staiges’s setting and Yavich’s costumes. “While Lessing’s musings on questions of faith may be of interest to today’s audiences,” felt Wood, “his antique scenario never quite seems to click for us.” The “plot becomes increasingly convoluted as the play progresses,” the Stage Buddy reviewer asserted, comparing it to “a credulity-stretching Plautian comedy,” even though Kulick’s staging “adds energy.” Declaring that Abraham is the “chief reason” to see Nathan, Wood also had praise for Abud and Lagerfelt, though he expressed reservations about Sands, who “pushed a bit hard at times.” Theatre Reviews Limited’s David Roberts called Lessing’s play “complex,” his characters “well-rounded and interesting,” and the plot “engaging and relevant.” “Under Brian Kulick’s artful and efficient direction,” alongside the “brilliant and the quintessence of exquisite acting” of Abraham, the “accomplished ensemble . . . successfully negotiates” the play’s complexities.
Charles Wright of CurtainUp dubbed CSC’s Nathan as “splendid looking,” thanks to “top-notch designers”—“an admirable valedictory” for Kulick. Wright characterized Kemp’s translation as “ear-pleasing prose” with “a contemporary ring throughout without seeming slangy or anachronistic.” Kulick, the CU reviewer found, assembled a “well-calibrated ensemble” led by Abraham, who “is like the concertmaster of a chamber orchestra, leading without calling undue attention to himself.” On Theater Pizzazz, Marilyn Lester dubbed Lessing’s Nathan the Wise “a remarkable work” and described Kemp’s translation as “both respectful to the original and perceptively modern and relevant.” Director Kulick “paced the work briskly and intelligently” and the “ensemble cast is pitch-perfect,” with special praise for Lagerfelt as the Patriarch (“chillingly fierce”) and especially Abraham, who “demonstrates why he’s one of the most talented and brilliant actors of our time.” Michael Hillyer described the CSC production as “handsome” on New York Theatre Guide, with a “talented company . . . creating a strong sense of ensemble,” “simple but effective” design elements, and direction that “helped to create a simple story-telling framework [and] concentrated upon the narrative.”
Michael Dale of Broadway World deemed that “NATHAN THE WISE, does play a bit like theatre for young audiences in Classic Stage Company’s new mounting” because “Kulick’s production draws obvious parallels between yesterday and today.” Of the performances, the BWW reviewer reported that Abraham’s Nathan is “wry-humored and amusingly philosophical,” Sands is “intense” as the Templar, and Saladin is “gregarious in Durant’s portrayal. Dale concluded that “while pleasant, sweet and well-acted, there’s little in NATHAN THE WISE to stimulate interest, aside from its value as a theatrical artifact.” On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray wrote that Nathan the Wise makes “soberly considered, worth-remembering points about religious tolerance,” but while “Lessing’s work is serious-minded,” Kulick’s staging “too often feels as though it isn’t.” To be fair to the director, who “instructed the whole cast to tread lightly,” Murray noted that Kemp’s translation “downplays the classical (literal and figurative) poetry.” All of Kulick’s approaches, “taken all together, . . . rob the work of the weight and the import that might have made it worth doing in the first place,” the TB blogger complained. Lessing’s story is “dogged” with “unlikeliness” and Kemp’s translation is “a soap-opera tract” with “unmusical dialogue” that Murray felt eliminated the lyricism and poetry of the original. Kulick and his design team abet these deficiencies “by jolting contemporaneity at every turn”; these tactics “lower the stakes” so “that the performances only skim the surface.” The result, said Murray, is that none of the actors, except Durant, hits the true notes for their characters and the audience is unengaged. The TB reviewer declared that the simple act of Abud’s and Durant’s saying prayers before the second half of the show says “more than all the rest of this production’s modern ministrations put together.” Zachary Stewart called the CSC revival of Nathan an “excellent and earnest production“ of Kemp’s “zippy” version on TheaterMania. Though Stewart thought that the reach out to the contemporary Middle East was “somewhat heavy-handed,” he allowed that it “actually complements Lessing's parabolic drama” and that Staiges’s “minimalist yet effective scenic design” enhances this connection because it “suggests both eras.”
On the cyber journal the Huffington Post there were two notices. The first, from Michael Giltz, dubbed Nathan the Wise a “warm-hearted story” that “has the shape of a Shakespearean romance, the insight of a Michael Frayn drama and the soul of a fairy tale”; however, “Kulick hasn’t quite woven all these strands into a cohesive evening of theater; the scenic design by Tony Straiges is especially indifferent.” Nonetheless, “a fine cast and the probing intelligence . . . make it an enjoyable one.” In Kemp’s translation, the play “has an elemental appeal,” but “the scenic design did the story no help”: Giltz found that the photo mural “with its mixed message distracted throughout.” The HP blogger deemed that Abraham “dominated . . . by quietly anchoring the performances of everyone around him,” although their acting was “slapdash in style.” Giltz concluded that “you are never in doubt as to the thrust of the story, even if “a certain clarity was lacking in the ending.” The following day, Giltz’s HP colleague Fern Siegel found the play “an emotional roller-coaster ride,” while at the same time “a bit contrived.” “Still,” Siegel continued, “its solid cast, led by a centered Abraham, carries it off.” Staiges’s scenery “is economical”—except for the photo mural, which she found “confusing”—and Yavich’s costumes “are evocative.”