From such stage plays as Twelve Angry Men and The Crucible, we know how courtroom dramas work. But in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says Stage West is presenting something of a courtroom comedy – a comedy about philosophy, no less.
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There’s actually no such thing as a ‘comedy of ideas.’ All comedies have ideas. It’s just that the ideas in some comedies are no-brainers. Thinking of fooling around with the maid when your wife might come home? That’s a bad idea. Marriage for this other loving couple? Obviously, that’s a good idea.
What sets New Jerusalem apart is that it’s a play about ideas. Playwright David Ives is best known for punching up old musical comedies and for the short comic gems in All in the Timing. But as funny as New Jerusalem often is, it takes ideas seriously. Ives even lets the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza explain his thinking at length. That may sound daunting, but it can actually be tremendously compelling — especially when Spinoza’s life is at stake.
We really don’t know much about why in 1656 in Amsterdam, the Jewish congregation sought to ban the young Spinoza for heresy. But it’s easy enough to surmise – as Ives does. Spinoza was probably already conjecturing how God and the universe are one. This makes God more an impersonal force, more like the God of science than the God of Moses. Or Spinoza was already speculating in public that such a universe would leave little room for free will. At times, even as he holds up rationalism as his great guide, Spinoza can sound like an atheist, a pantheist or a determinist.
Or he can just be confusing, especially to the average 1656 mind. In New Jerusalem, the Jewish council interrogates him and his girlfriend Clara (Barrett Nash) and rummages through his letters — all in an effort to understand his provocative beliefs.
Ben Israel (Michael Corolla): “Atheism appears to be completely incomprehensible.”
Van Valkenburgh (Russell Dean Schultz): “Haven’t you heard his slippery answers?”
Ben Israel (Michael Corolla): “You can’t prosecute a person for being slippery. You’d decimate the population.” [Laughter]
But in addition to fleshing out Spinoza’s fateful cross-examination, Ives has raised the stakes considerably. Historically, Amsterdam’s Jews had fled the Spanish Inquisition. The Dutch Protestants let them stay – with restrictions, including the fact that they officially remained non-citizens. But Spinoza’s freethinking has alarmed the conservative Christians. They demand the Jews silence him or all the Jews may suffer. Ironically, having fled the Inquisition, the Jews are forced to set up their own ecclesiastical tribunal.
With New Jerusalem, David Ives brings his humor into the world of such courtroom dramas as Inherit the Wind – a world where ideas have painful consequences. But there are also overtones of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the entire issue of whether Jews should assimilate or accommodate to survive when faced with oppression (Anne Frank, after all — currently being portrayed on stage at the WaterTower Theatre — was rounded up in Amsterdam).
Ives even has Spinoza fling the loaded term ‘collaborator’ at his accusers — which, Anne Frank or not, is a bit much. This was the ‘Golden Age’ for the Netherlands — the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Dutch East India Company and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology. Amsterdam was known for its religious tolerance — of Jews and Huguenots. Even with restrictions, the city wasn’t close to being Nazi Germany.
But I suspect Ives has ramped up the stakes like this, not so much to invoke the Final Solution. Rather, Spinoza’s plight also echoes political conflicts closer to home, ones in America involving religious wars, conservative Christians and our own use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’
In particular, Spinoza’s interrogation is painful for Rabbi Mortera. His feelings are complicated not just because Spinoza was his beloved, prize pupil. Mortera also helped broker the Jews’ accommodation with Amsterdam.
Rabbi Mortera (Jim Covault): “Will you insult the God of Israel to my face? Do you realize what you stand to lose here today? Your family? Your business, your home – “
Baruch Spinoza (Garrett Storms): “In truth, I don’t possess them. I have been lent them to enjoy. “
Mortera: “You dare to be glib?”
Spinoza: “Maybe the question isn’t what I stand to lose, but what you do.”
That’s Jim Covault playing Mortera. Covault is a dry, reserved actor, but underplaying Mortera’s anguish only makes it resonate more. Covault’s one of the best things in the Stage West production — the play practically becomes Mortera’s tragedy. In contrast to such subtlety, there’s Russell Dean Schultz’ stern Van Valkenburgh, the Christian city official who sees himself as the voice of reason, even as he forces the synagogue into a double bind. Bellowing, almost by definition, is a one-note affair.
As for the central role of Spinoza, Garret Storms has the energy and focused will of Tom Cruise. But all that grinning charm can get annoying. True, Ives’ Spinoza doesn’t seem too overly concerned about what may happen to him (at least, not as concerned as his friends seem to be). But Storms plays him as more the brash, radical firebrand, uncaring about what his iconoclasm might bring down on everyone’s head. He’s less the modest Spinoza who loved Clara, a Christian woman he knew he could never marry, and who spent the rest of his life grinding lenses.
For the Stage West production, Jim Covault has provided a striking, simple set design for the synagogue’s meeting room, one that amplifies the play’s relevance. It looks like a Pottery Barn floor display. Overall, directed by Jerry Russell, this New Jerusalem is sharp, clean and powerful. Even if you know what happened historically, the play’s interrogation — its arguments over faith and philosophy — can be gripping.
And rather contemporary.