"So, Young Mr. Spinoza, Just What Is Your Thinking About God?"

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In het toneelstuk "New Jerusalem" wordt een onbekend deel van Spinoza's leven behandeld: zijn ondervraging door de sephardiem, zoals blijkt uit de ondertitel "The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656." Nu te zien. In New York.

Wie tijd en zin heeft: het stuk wordt gespeelt bij "Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York".

Onderstaande recensie uit de New York Times.

January 14, 2008 - Theater Review | 'New Jerusalem'
So, Young Mr. Spinoza, Just What Is Your Thinking About God?

In recent years the playwright David Ives has become better known as a theatrical plastic surgeon. He’s the man primarily responsible for nipping and tucking the wayward books of the wheezier Broadway musicals for the City Center Encores! series. And this season he did his level best to spray away the smell of mothballs from a previously unproduced play by Mark Twain, “Is He Dead?”

Mr. Ives’s latest act of literary ventriloquism is possibly his most challenging yet. In his new play “New Jerusalem,” which opened Sunday at the Classic Stage Company, Mr. Ives is channeling no less a thinker than Spinoza, the influential Jewish philosopher of the 17th century and a man not exactly known for his snappy humor.

Before Mr. Ives established a reputation as the best cut-and-paste man in the business, he was known for short comic plays presented in omnibus collections like “All in the Timing.” So is he kidding with this Spinoza business? Will the great thinker find reason to sport a pair of plastic Groucho glasses at some point?

The play’s sobering subtitle — “The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656” — provides the answer. Intellectual persecution is not a laughing matter after all. Mr. Ives has strayed a long way from 42nd Street, into territory more suited, it would seem, to the likes of Tom Stoppard. One fears footnotes.

But Mr. Ives’s humor has always mixed the cerebral with the silly, so his daring leap into metaphysics is not entirely anomalous. In “New Jerusalem” he occasionally indulges his relish of a good wisecrack — “There is no Jewish dogma,” Spinoza quips, “only bickering” — but for the most part he takes off the clown mask and serves up a straight drama full of heady talk about God and nature and the essence of things. The play is a lumpy but generally engrossing primer on Spinoza’s radical thinking, presented in the classic style of a courtroom drama and buoyed by a skilled cast.

As that daunting subtitle suggests and students of philosophy will know, the play is based on actual events. Spinoza, a Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam, was a brilliant scholar whose inquiries led him into territory that made trouble for his fellow Jews, who were graciously tolerated if not wholly welcomed into Dutch society.

The play opens with the brief for the prosecution from Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), a civic leader who is alarmed at rumors that the well-liked young man is spreading poisonous thought through the city. “He is a threat to the piety and morals of this entire city, and he and his ideas must be stopped,” he importantly intones. “The city’s regents send you this message: Abide by our laws, adhere to the regulations governing your community or face the consequences.”

Mr. Ives lays out the mechanics and the consequences of Spinoza’s interrogation in a debate among van Valkenburgh; the city’s chief rabbi, Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Easton), Spinoza’s teacher and mentor; and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Fyvush Finkel), a “parnas” of the temple congregation, or member of the committee that will pass judgment on the case. At stake is possible excommunication from the religious fold, and indeed all social contact with the city’s Jewish establishment.

What exactly is Spinoza accused of? Oh, just general atheism and heretical questioning of key tenets of Judaism and Christianity. But before presenting the interrogations as a battle of ideas between Spinoza and his accusers, Mr. Ives gives us a snapshot portrait of the philosopher as a young man.

Idling at a tavern with a friend, Simon de Vries (Michael Izquierdo), the young Spinoza, who is played as a gentle-hearted genius by the engaging Jeremy Strong, speaks of his interest in things eternal and things mathematical, and the connections between the two. Later, exchanging confidences with a music teacher, Clara Van den Enden (Natalia Payne), to whom he is romantically devoted, he dismisses as “entertaining stories” many of the biblical tales she holds dear. “Nature, which is to say God, cannot depart from its own laws,” he explains in a friendly tone, as if speaking of simple sums.

Mr. Ives has studied his Spinoza and infuses the dialogue here and in the interrogation scenes with chunks of his later writings trimmed down to their essentials. There is no historical record of the actual testimony at the synagogue, so Mr. Ives has a free hand to present the conflict as a sort of impromptu seminar in Spinoza’s theology and philosophy, interrupted with skeptical questions from the opposing team.

For the most part the debate makes for lively if dense listening. Mr. Garrison huffs and fumes with convincing earnestness as the grand inquisitor, while Mr. Finkel’s slyly sympathetic Ben Israel does his best to find the good Jew underneath the iconoclastic thinking, at least until Spinoza begins picking apart the Articles of Faith.

Mr. Easton conveys Mortera’s divided heart with moving simplicity. Deeply fond of Spinoza and often swayed by his dazzling thinking, he nevertheless knows the welfare of the city’s Jews relies on the forbearance and good will of the Dutch Christian leaders.

The play has its unwieldy passages. The intrusion into the proceedings of Spinoza’s half sister Rebekah, her peevishness honed to strident intensity by Jenn Harris, is jarring and unconvincing. Rebekah’s long monologue excoriating Spinoza for his heresies adds little to the conversation, and her sudden conversion to his defense in the play’s last moments is bewildering. And like many another courtroom drama, “New Jerusalem” is often static.

But as Mr. Strong’s Spinoza parries each attack with good-natured ease, the debate mostly holds your attention. His Spinoza is perky and adorable, a brash but modest young fellow whose head is amusingly stuffed not with baseball statistics but with incisive conclusions about God, nature and the universe. You may have no idea what he’s going on about — Spinoza’s work is famously dense — but you can’t help rooting for the guy.

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