The full title of the new production at the New Jewish Theatre — “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656” — has all the appeal of a hefty textbook. Even as you dislodge it from the shelf at the campus bookstore, you can feel your heart, and your eyelids, sink.
Ignore that response (as David Ives should have). This is passionate, heady drama, rich in vivid characters, set in a time and place remote enough to entrance us but beset by contradictions not unlike those that communities confront today.
Spinoza, one of the great Western philosophers, grew up in the insular Sephardic community in Amsterdam. Only a few generations earlier, Jews from Spain and Portugal, fleeing the Inquisition, had found tolerance in the Netherlands.
But tolerance had its limits. Jews were forbidden to discuss religion with Christians. And Spinoza did more than talk. Even in his early 20s, he put his unusual ideas into writing.
The drama takes place on the day when everything boiled over. A representative of the city fathers, Abraham van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz), comes to the synagogue demanding action. Accusing young Spinoza (Rob Riordan) of atheism and more, he asks the leaders of the community to help banish him from Amsterdam.
Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (John Flack) and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston), a leader of the synagogue board, are appalled. They have known Spinoza all his life, his family much longer. Pressed by Valkenburgh to act, they concede that in an extreme case they could impose “herem,” a sentence something like excommunication. No Jew could speak with him or deal with him.
But they don’t want that. Everyone admires Spinoza; they thought one day he would lead the congregation himself. And the rabbi loves him like a grandson.
Much of the play is given over to the interrogation, not exactly a trial but similar. Spinoza is to answer questions posed by Valkenburgh, a well-educated man and a pillar of the Dutch Reformed Church. Mortera poses questions, too — questions designed to appeal to Spinoza’s affection for the aged rabbi, as well as to his vast Jewish learning. An atheist? Preposterous! Baruch is a Jew, period.
But Spinoza won’t back down. Knowing the risks, he argues for his position — which is not atheism, but isn’t a traditional idea of God, either — until Valkenburgh triumphs. The Jews will put him under herem, and the city will exile him.
Whether Ives does justice to Spinoza’s ideas, scholars can decide. (Probably not; this is, after all, a play.) But it does justice to the idea of community, a community trying to protect each of its members yet simultaneously trying to determine what makes it a community to begin with.
Under the direction of Tim Ocel, each member of the cast contributes fine work. Butz is sharp as a hawk’s talons; Johnston, avuncular and self-assured, promises Spinoza that the community will take care of him — until he’s heard too much and, red-faced, changes his mind. And as Spinoza, Riordan not only confounds the image of the melancholy thinker, he turns it on its (now-smiling) head.
His Spinoza loves to draw, loves the sunlight on the canals, doesn’t even resent the fact that his love for sweet, Christian Clara van den Eden (Karlie Pinder) can never come to anything.
But he might love thinking most of all. Riordan’s joyous delivery of his argument — that God is one with nature and with everything, even a chair — nails his portrayal of a fundamentally happy man.
There’s more good work from Will Bonfiglio as Spinoza’s friend and from Jennifer Theby-Quinn as his sister. And Flack, as the rabbi, is simply sensational.
In a wide-ranging, fiery performance, Flack embodies the contradiction at the core of the drama. He loves Spinoza with all his heart, and he loves the community in his care as well. He cannot reconcile the demands on him — demands that Flack plays out in the final scene, a ritual of haunting resonance.
The production looks great. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler combines mostly modern attire (Butz wears a wristwatch) with pieces that evoke the period. Jon Ontiveros’ lighting imbues the action with drama.
The set is itself a marvel. Designed by Peter and Margery Spack, it’s a formal square echoing the style of Sephardic synagogues, big enough to give the actors room and spare enough to focus on them entirely. The Spacks do the space generous justice, which is more than Spinoza found.