David Ives’ New Jerusalem is set in 1656, and it’s about the herem, or excommunication, of philosopher Baruch de Spinoza from Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah congregation.
But as director Joseph Adler’s new production at GableStage demonstrates, the 2008 Off-Broadway play is no stuffy historical drama (though it does unfold in a 17th century synagogue designed by Lyle Baskin, and its characters wear Ellis Tillman’s period costumes).
Yes, the script is grounded in fact and sometimes dense with philosophical and religious debate. But pause a moment to consider the frequent clash of faith-based ideas in our 21st century world, not to mention the sometimes horrific cruelty that can go along with imposing dogmatic religious beliefs on others. New Jerusalem has plenty to say to contemporary audiences.
Ives, whose plays include All in the Timing, Venus in Fur and adaptations or translations of works by Molière, Feydeau and Mark Twain, imbues his play with the restless philosophical thought of the 23-year-old Baruch de Spinoza (Abdiel Vivancos). Taking place on July 27, 1656 — the day Spinoza was banished for life from Amsterdam’s strictly regulated Jewish community — the courtroom-style drama imagines the audience as the congregation witnessing Spinoza’s examination on charges of aethism and blasphemy.
His inquisitors are Abraham van Valkenburgh (Stephen G. Anthony), a Christian city regent whose biases toward those in a community denied full citizenship become clear; Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Gregg Weiner), the parnas or administrative head of the Talmud Torah congregation; and, later, Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (Larry Bramble), the young man’s revered former teacher who once imagined Spinoza might follow in his footsteps.
At various points, Spinoza’s Christian friend, artist Simon de Vries (Javier Del Riego); Clara van den Enden (Hannah Benitez), the Christian music teacher Spinoza loves; and Rebekah de Spinoza (Natalia Coego), the philosopher’s angry half sister, enter the action. Ives’ extensive research on place, period, religion and philosophy is the bedrock of New Jerusalem. But the dialogue is easy on contemporary ears, and the occasional laugh line briefly relieves the mounting tension.
What makes GableStage’s New Jerusalem worth watching, even for those who know little about the rationalist many consider the most relevant 17th century philosopher, are the company’s largely powerful performances and the play’s many resonant human moments. Those would include betrayal by a friend, the hopelessness of a forbidden love, understanding twisted into vengeance.
Vivancos is a fascinating Spinoza, a questing and gentle spirit who finds God in places his accusers would never consider. His delight in following the exploratory trails of his ideas shows as radiance on his face. Yet when faced with banishment from family and community, from all that he has known, he’s strong and stoic.
Anthony and Weiner artfully, impressively make van Valkenburgh and Ben Israel antagonists who finally become allied in their persecution of Spinoza. Coego’s Rebekah isn’t an easy role — she’s intended as comic relief, and her about-face toward Spinoza is one of Ives’ less convincing maneuvers — but there’s no denying that New Jerusalem gets a jolt of passionate energy whenever Coego speaks. Bramble’s performance as the rabbi achieves much-needed power toward the end of the play, but his fumbling for words at the start is a weakening distraction. Benitez and Del Riego are fine, but Ives doesn’t give either the kind of pithy material the others have.
Spinoza’s masterwork, Ethics, was published posthumously. His death at 44 came from a lung disease he may have contracted from his work grinding lenses. His birth name was “Benedito,” his Jewish name “Baruch,” his Latin name “Benedictus.” Ironically, in the context of the events depicted in New Jerusalem, all three versions have the same translation: blessed.
If you go
What: ‘New Jerusalem’ by David Ives.
Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through April 26 (no evening show March 29, no performance April 3).
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.