Theater review: ‘New Jerusalem...’ at Pico Playhouse


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Take Spinoza. Please.

That pretty much sums up the views of both Jewish and Christian leaders toward the theological hot potato at the center of David Ives’ “New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” Ives’ 2008 play is a speculative riff on the historical trial convened by Jewish elders at the insistence of the Dutch government in an attempt to suppress Spinoza’s dangerous philosophy.

Though best known for his cerebral sketch comedy anthology, “All in the Timing,” Ives’ intent here is a serious play of ideas. The religious as well as political tensions between dogma and original thought are taken to heart in Elina de Santos’ staging for West Coast Jewish Theatre, notwithstanding telltale signs of insufficient rehearsal.


The stakes are high: A guilty pronouncement by the senior rabbi (Richard Fancy) would subject 23-year-old Spinoza (a miscast Marco Naggar) to excommunication and expulsion from his Jewish community; failure to silence him threatens the precarious safe haven extended to the Jews by the Dutch representative (Mark Bramhall). Using inventive anachronistic liberties, Ives offers a concise “Spinoza Primer” on the views that threatened religious orthodoxy on both sides.

Breathing life into those ideas, however, requires performers who understand them. Setting aside flubbed lines, cadences and delivery frequently do not reflect a good handle on their meaning. Instead, emotional peaks arrive at arbitrary overacted moments, with insignificant sound and fury.

Even a serious-minded play needn’t be utterly humorless — this is David Ives, after all. In addition to Talmudic scripture, his dialogue invokes that other great Jewish tradition — Borscht Belt comedy, sadly underserved here with readings that manage to botch even Henny Youngman’s signature one-liner. As Ives would say, it really is all in the timing. ALSO:

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-– Philip Brandes

“New Jerusalem...,” Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 1. $28. (323) 821-2449 or Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.