Theater review: New Jerusalem by David Ives

Friedland’s Spinoza is an attractive, likeable youngster who’s afire with new ideas.

New Jerusalem Play 370 (photo credit: Yael Eylan)
New Jerusalem Play 370
(photo credit: Yael Eylan)
In 1656, the Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated a brilliant, outspoken and already famous young man for heresy. His name was Baruch de Spinoza (1632-77), and his ideas about God, nature, belief and the place of man within it all outraged and, let’s face it, terrified not only his fellow Jews but the Amsterdam civil authorities under whose sufferance the Jews dwelt in Holland.
This very watchable production of Ives’ New Jerusalem is subtitled “The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud- Torah Congregation...” and in it young Baruch (Vitaly Friedland), nick-named Bento, articulates the revolutionary ideas that get him into so much trouble.
These are not easy, and it’s definitely a play about ideas, but Ives’ text wraps them not only in humor but pits them dramatically against Bento’s relationships with his best friend Simon (Itay Zvolon), his avaricious half-sister Rebeekah (Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan), his mentor and beloved teacher, Rabbi Mortara (Arie Tcherner), his Gentile beloved Clara (Ortal Avnaim) and the hostility of Amsterdam regent Van Valkenburgh (Yossi Eini).
The action is set mainly below the lectern of Dana Tzarfaty’s stylized and elegant rendering of Amsterdam’s Sephardic Synagogue and its essence is deftly, ironically and amusingly projected via Zvi Fishon’s commedia-del-arte sketches performed by the cast in masks. If this was director Peter’s idea – it’s brilliant.
Friedland’s Spinoza is an attractive, likeable youngster who’s so afire with his ideas that he really doesn’t understand what has everybody up in arms.
He projects a young man whose brilliance is along for the ride during the fun of living, and Zvolon’s Simon keeps right up with him. They’re a pleasure.
Arie Tcherner does his usual great job with Mortara, Mesilati-Kaplan’s Rebeekah is rather too stereotypically shrewish, Avnaim’s Clara lacks color, and Avi Pnini is brisk as parnas Ben Israel.
The usually brilliant Yossi Eini seems uncomfortable with the role of bully and so the character doesn’t really connect.
His costume of a silvery jacket crossed by a sash is no help either. Altogether, this is a play where period costumes would not be amiss. What’s on stage is neither period nor contemporary – a trend that most of our repertory theaters seem to be embracing – and it’s misplaced.