Baruch de Spinoza has found heaven on earth, where God is no longer separate from his people and everything is exactly as it is meant to be. He’s telling everyone because, the best part is, this paradise is right now. But when his ideas threaten to destroy his world as he knows it, will he have the proof to back them up? GableStage puts the famous philosopher in the hot seat in its production of “New Jerusalem.”
“New Jerusalem” is a 2008 play by Tony Award-nominated playwright David Ives. The show depicts, essentially in real time, the interrogation of Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza by both secular and Jewish officials on July 27, 1656. As a Jewish resident of Amsterdam, Spinoza was in a precarious position. At the time, Jews had a safe haven from persecution there, but only if they refrained from practicing their faith in public and, more importantly, only if the Chief Rabbi and Parnas made sure every member of their community was a faithful believer. Spinoza stood accused of atheism and spreading radical ideas to destabilize the state. If convicted by his congregation, he would face permanent excommunication and banishment from the city.
For a man fighting for his birthright and identity, Spinoza, portrayed by Abdiel Vivancos, took an unusually casual attitude toward the whole affair. Although Ives’s script is heavily tilted in Spinoza’s favor, he is hard to root for as he smirks his way through the proceedings with an unrelenting air of, ironically, “holier-than-thou.”
This issue is a contributing factor in “New Jerusalem”’s critical flaw: a severe lack of dramatic tension. The play is based off real events, so of course the ending is no secret. But Gablestage’s production is dragged down by a feeling of inevitability. It is clear from the start that no minds will be changed in the onstage debate; throughout the first act, the practically life-and-death stakes are seemingly ignored, and although the action picks up considerably in act two, both sides present their arguments via self-righteous tactics doomed to fail.
There are a few high points in this overly-flat production, but they are the exception that proves the rule. University of Miami alumnus Javier Del Riego makes the best of the role of Spinoza’s Christian friend Simon de Vries, despite serving as a glorified plot device to prove the persuasive power of the protagonist’s defense. Larry Bramble claims the most affecting performance of the show as Rabbi Mortera, since he is one of the few to craft a three-dimensional character.
As a result, “New Jerusalem” is less a play and more of a creatively presented philosophy lesson. When examined in this context, it is actually a very satisfying evening. Vivancos gives an energetic and compelling overview of Spinoza’s “ethics,” which is almost entirely directed at the audience who are thrust into the role of the Jewish community. It seems he is more actively courting the crowd’s approval than the other characters, which gives his monologues the feel of an engaging lecture rather than an impassionate argument.
In the show, Spinoza attempts to explain his concept of the soul by comparing it to a play. He views the soul not as an independent entity but as defined by interactions between people and nature. Reversing this metaphor, GableStage’s production of “New Jerusalem” struggled to find its soul, losing itself in the facts and missing the element of connection required for great theatre.
IF YOU GO
Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through April 26 (no evening show March 29, no performance April 3).
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.
Read more at http://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/performing-arts/article16817711.html