It’s been a mere 20 months since Theater J staged the first non-New York production of New Jerusalem, David Ives’ brilliantly imagined account of the 1656 inquest that resulted in pioneering philosopher Baruch de Spinoza’s excommunication from a Jewish congregation in Amsterdam. Not familiar? I wasn’t, either. The events depicted are probably newsier to me—a Gentile who got a B in Philosophy 101 and inquired no further—than they will be to many who attend this taut, absorbing theological courtroom drama. But this is no dry helping of nourishing cultural vegetables. Anyone who caught the magnificent production of Ives’ Venus in Fur at Studio Theatre last summer (only the most recent of his area triumphs) will know the playwright is a first-class wit who brings a light touch to heavy questions.
New Jerusalem’s are the black-hole heaviest—nothing less than the nature of “Nature, which is to say God,” to cite one of the heretical notions that got Spinoza in Dutch with the, um, Dutch. In Ives’ telling, it was under pressure from the regents of the majority-Christian city that Spinoza was summoned to demonstrate before fellow congregants (played by we, the audience) that his unconventional beliefs—his rejection of a soul that outlives the body, for one—did not constitute atheism.
There’s no record of the hearing; only the order of excommunication, unprecedented in its harshness, survives. That gives Ives plenty of leeway for jokes, and there’s no dearth of them, thank God. (“There is no Jewish dogma, only bickering.”) Still, the real action is in the erudition and vigor of the debate itself, as performed by a sterling trio of actors reprising their roles from the 2010 production: a never-better Alexander Strain as Spinoza, Lawrence Redmond as the beady-eyed prosecutor Valkenburgh, and Michael Tolaydo as Rabbi Mortera, Spinoza’s beloved teacher—a man who’d believed Spinoza might succeed him to lead the congregation, instead saddled with the heart-rending chore of sentencing him to exile.
But why? The Portuguese Inquisition, having become rather more expected than its Spanish precursor, had driven the chosen people out on pain of forced conversion, torture, and/or murder. Amsterdam offered shelter, but the city’s welcome came with strings attached: Jews were forbidden to worship publicly or to discuss religion with Christians, among other restrictions. One of the more curious aspects of the agreements of 1619 was that Jewish practice within Amsterdam must remain orthodox.
The fit of that jacket would prove too tight for Spinoza. Strain’s performance is finely calibrated, showing us a man whose uncommon sincerity and curiosity far outweigh his occasional arrogance. Redmond, too, finds layers in Valkenburgh that make us understand he believes he’s doing the right and necessary thing. Only Spinoza’s shrewish half-sister Rebekkah (Colleen Delany) and milquetoast pal Simon (Brandon McCoy) seem like underfed characters; their ever-shifting positions vis-à-vis our protagonist are never quite convincing, and their interjections only highlight how smooth and refined everything else is. You wouldn’t expect the path to enlightenment to move at such a sprightly pace.