New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 by David Ives (*Philadelphia Premiere) Lantern Theater Company, Oct. 12– Nov. 6, 2011, (run extended) Review of Oct. 12 airs WRTI, 90.1 FM on Oct. 17.
We think of philosophers as old men…Baruch Spinoza was only 23 when he was put on trial in his synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656 for his radical beliefs. Expelled from the Jewish and Christian communities there, he was considered a social outcast. In David Ives’ New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theater, Sam Henderson gives one of the West’s greatest philosophers an engaging, ‘still working things out’ demeanor, gargantuan confidence and generosity of spirit that tallies with history. During the Inquisition things were better in Amsterdam than the Portugal, from which the Spinoza family had fled. But tolerance isn’t always free for free- thinking men. Spinoza’s ideas took off from Descartes’s and moved too far and fast for the citizens of 1656.
In New Jerusalem, Ives sees Spinoza as scapegoat for the Jewish people that the Dutch were uncomfortable having around. Seth Reichgott plays Abraham, the Christian ringleader for Spinoza’s silencing. He’s a rousing prosecutor in a courtroom drama Bill Maher would appreciate. Abraham enlists Spinoza’s beloved Rabbi (David Bardeen) to quash the young libertine.
The first act of New Jerusalem is a triumph of tension as the men attempt to trap the unwitting Spinoza. The second falters with some overwriting. The part of Spinoza’s sister is overwritten and overplayed. The arguments put forth and pro and con for God, soul, afterlife by the dueling Rabbi and his star pupil in New Jerusalem are contemporary. No one knows what really happened inside Talmud Torah Congregation only the result. Ives’s play shows Spinoza- in- progress, before he has finished Ethics before he has done the work that helped birth the Enlightenment. History is personal, philosophy human.At the Lantern, superb principals and Charles MacMahon’s direction show this very well.