The playwright isn’t tremendously well-known. The title is awkward and ridiculously long. And the subject matter is so dense one assumes it would appeal only to the most scholarly of philosophers and theologians. Yet this unlikely combination of factors has spawned this theater season’s first sleeper hit: Lantern Theater Company’s wildly successful production of David Ives’ New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.
A brilliant 17th-century religious student, Spinoza was the favorite son of Amsterdam’s small Jewish community and the local rabbi’s heir apparent. But he was also a revolutionary thinker whose bold ideas about God and the nature of the universe were considered dangerously radical—even by the relatively liberal standards of one of Europe’s most tolerant cities. A charge of atheism was levied against Spinoza, and the play is constructed as a courtroom drama with Spinoza defending his ideas under the stringent questioning of a grand inquisitor. The stakes are high both for Spinoza (who faces excommunication) and Amsterdam’s Jewish community, which cherishes the goodwill of the city’s Christian leaders and has little tolerance for a troublemaker.
It’s interesting stuff, but it doesn’t exactly scream blockbuster. Yet somehow, this intellectually compelling play was a hit even before it opened. With 75 percent of all seats for the show’s run sold prior to opening night, New Jerusalem earned the largest pre-sale in the Lantern’s 17-year history. Since opening, it’s become even more of a box-office bonanza: It’s been extended twice (the latest extension concludes Nov. 12) and according to Lantern artistic director Charles McMahon, it’s on track to dethrone Lantern’s vibrant staging of Hamlet as the company’s top-seller.
McMahon says that the company didn’t do anything “radically different” in terms of marketing the carefully researched but fictionalized account of Spinoza’s trial by a jury of his peers. “We made a lot of efforts to contact people in academic circles to know about the play,” he says. “We knew the play would also strike a chord with people interested in a serious dialogue about religion and theology, so we contacted synagogues as well.” McMahon says the response from the Jewish community has been “especially strong” but that audiences of all faiths (as well as agnostics) have likewise been engaged by the questions Ives raises about God and the nature of the universe.
“It’s why you get into theater in the first place” McMahon says. “To bring people together, to start meaningful and enjoyable dialogue, and to put great ideas into perspective and show how they connect with our lives. Seeing the work accomplish all these goals has been tremendous.”
Through Nov. 12. $20-$36. St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow sts. 215.829.0395. lanterntheater.org
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