David Ives is that rare being, a man of letters. Playwright, novelist and translator, he produces works ranging from French farce to an investigation of the life and times of a famous Jewish philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza.
Currently in production at Theater J, "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656" is set where it says it is set. Amsterdam became home to many members of the Portuguese Jewish community who left Portugal because of the Inquisition.
In Ives' play they must deal with the fact that a young Spinoza's unorthodox ideas have scandalized the respectable burghers of the city. Facing Spinoza is the possibility that he may be excommunicated from the Jewish community.
Spinoza (Alexander Strain), who is questioning nothing less than established theories of God, man, creation, virtue, truth and the soul, is upsetting not only the Christians who provide safe haven for the Jews but also the Jews themselves, particularly his former teacher, Rabbi Mortera (Michael Tolaydo).
A third point of view, the Christian one, is represented by Abraham van Valkenburgh (Lawrence Redmond), who plays the paternalistic, unfeeling representative of Amsterdam, a man determined to silence Spinoza.
If you go "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656" Where: Theater J, Washington DC JCC, 1529 16th St. NW When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, noon July 14; through July 25 Info: $30 to $55; 800-494-8497; theaterj.org
Part of the appeal of "New Jerusalem" is that it offers a novel view of an extraordinary man -- not the Spinoza who is known today for his lifework, but a young man who loved nature, who liked to sketch, a dreamer who was passionately in love with a young Catholic woman. One of the most engaging elements of the play is that, as conceived by Ives, this young man is not yet a philosopher but someone searching for answers. There is considerable humor in "New Jerusalem," much of it provided by Spinoza thinking out loud as he tries to put his ideas together. Strain is delightful as the intelligent, lively, eloquent Spinoza, a brilliant mind in a young and energetic body.
The main arguments of the play are given to Spinoza and Mortera, and it is a credit to Ives' writing that a play so dense with philosophical and religious discussion not once sounds talky or preachy. Ethan Bowen plays a synagogue elder, Ben Israel, a friend and supporter of Spinoza who gradually turns against him. Brandon McCoy is powerful in the role of Spinoza's best friend, Simon. Spinoza's girlfriend, Clara, is played with gentle grace by Lauren Culpepper.
The only role that is not integral to the production is that of Rebekah (Eliza Bell), Spinoza's sister. Continually interrupting the action with her quasi-humorous asides, she eventually becomes more a nuisance than an addition to the production.
Director Jeremy Skidmore skillfully integrates the audience into the production. In Misha Kachman's set, the seats of the theater face seven rows of seats on risers, a mirror image of the theater; a row of chairs is set onstage; four brass chandeliers extend from the stage into the audience.
The characters are not set in period dress, which distances the play from the 17th century. Although some of the characters wear clothes that are not circa 2010 -- Valkenburgh, for instance, wears a white suit and elaborate gold-embroidered vest -- Kathleen Geldard's costumes offer only vague references to time and place.
Although it deals with an important moment in history, "New Jerusalem" is not a history play. It succeeds because its various themes -- the examination of entrenched power versus intellectual and spiritual freedom, the examination of the growth of personal belief -- are so carefully woven together by Ives and given life by Theater J's accomplished cast.