An absorbing debate over theological ideas

Posted: September 07, 2012

'We are tolerant, but we have our limits," says a city official. Somehow 17th-century Amsterdam sounds oddly familiar, especially when it comes to immigrants, religious broad-mindedness, interfaith romances, and radical new ideas. And so this play by David Ives, New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656, at Lantern Theater, launches an absorbing, 2½-hour theological debate.

The Portuguese Jews had fled persecution and found refuge in Holland, but their safety came at a price: obedience and silence. In this community that necessarily had to defend itself against any threat to the status quo, a young Jew named Baruch de Spinoza - a philosopher who would change the course of civilized thought - rocked the boat. Whether his ideas were misunderstood and thought a danger to both the Jews and the Christians, or whether the latent anti-Semitism of the Dutch motivated his trial, he was threatened with excommunication from the Jewish community.

In a trial bordering on an inquisition, Spinoza (Sam Henderson) has to explain his philosophy to a narrow-minded prosecutor (Seth Reichgott), as well as to his beloved mentor, Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira (David Bardeen in a passionate performance), his false friend (Jake Blouch), his Christian girlfriend (Mary Tuomanen), his belligerent sister (Kittson O'Neill), and a bewildered member of the congregation (David Blatt).

The ideas are difficult: nothing less than the knowability of God, the nature of the universe, the role of government in human life, and, ultimately, how one should live.

Spinoza points out that the word philosophy means "love of wisdom," and he is fervently, wildly in love with ideas. Henderson's convincing performance lets us see a mind thinking and enjoying thinking - and a mind that, even in the face of the harshest punishment, will not shut up.

If you know Ives only from his famous collection of one-acts, All in the Timing (some of the funniest plays ever written), you'll be surprised by this serious, intense drama. It is to Charles McMahon's credit that he finds a way to stage a long, difficult debate and make it interesting - although he can't always make it dramatic: Act 1 is a slow-going setup, but it builds to a fine frenzy in Act 2.

The characters are more mouthpieces than people, but those mouthpieces speak some gripping ideas.


New Jerusalem

Presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, through Sept. 23. Tickets: $10-$38.

Information: 215-829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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