by Samuel L. Leiter
One of the most important works of its time, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s German “dramatic poem” (which premiered 1783), Nathan the Wise, is now in a rare American revival directed by Brian Kulick at Classic Stage Company. Its first stagings failed but after a successful 1801 production by Goethe and Schiller it grew in prestige, was translated into many languages, and became so popular at home that it received 45 productions in 1900-01. Its argument against religious intolerance made it anathema to the Nazis, but it was the first play produced in Germany when the war ended. Kulick’s staging is less than scintillating but the great F. Murray Abraham (Academy Award winner for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus) provides a distinguished performance in the title role.
Nathan the Wise bravely posits the idea that no religion can claim superiority over any other regarding its claim to the true faith. It honors the religious rationalism of Nathan, a wise, noble, and wealthy Jewish merchant (inspired by philosopher Moses Mendelssohn). The locale is Jerusalem in 1192-93, when it was ruled by the Muslim sultan Saladin (Austin Durant), then under attack by Christianity’s Crusaders.
The play’s relevance to current world conditions couldn’t be more apparent, but Tony Straiges has provided a red herring of a set to underline it. We see a mostly bare stage distractingly backed by a life-sized black and white photograph of a bombed-out Palestinian (presumably) street occupying the upstage wall. Its one-sidedness apart, someone must have thought we needed this reminder of today’s Middle Eastern conflict before we could appreciate the universality of Lessing’s message.
Nathan, whose own family was wiped out by the Christians, is the adoptive father of Rachel (Erin Neufer), a Christian orphan he raised. She falls in love with a Templar named Conrad (Stark Sands), whose own life was saved by Saladin because of his resemblance to the latter’s late brother, Assad. Various plot contrivances eventuate in the lovers discovering they’re actually siblings, the offspring of Assad, a Christian convert. There are various subsidiary events, including the threat by Jerusalem’s Patriarch (Caroline Lagerfelt, who also plays Rachel’s Christian servant), to find and punish the local Jew he learns raised a Christian girl. In his bigoted narrowmindedness, he deems this charitably Christian act to be sacrilegious enough to warrant burning at the stake.
Edward Kemp’s translation, originally performed at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in 2003, is actually more like an adaptation, for much of which we should be grateful; it compresses Lessing’s original five acts into two, cuts its time from four hours to two, alters its verse to prose, and uses modern language. More questionable are the interpolations of minor metatheatrical scenes, including bits in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. There’s also an unnecessary Arabic prayer serving as Act II’s prelude; no similar rites for the other religions are offered.
Overall, the style resembles a Brechtian parable play. Kulick uses the tired convention of having the cast remain visible on chairs as they watch scenes they’re not in, although actors sometimes look directly at those they’re referencing in their dialogue. The actors first appear in street clothes and then dress before us in simple white robes adorned with (mostly) black designs (the costumier is Anita Yavich), while their regular garments remain visible underneath. Apart from its tight sleeves, Nathan’s robe and sash are no different than a yukata and obi.
Act I, relying heavily on exposition, slogs along, but Act II picks up interest as the complications pile up, with the highlight being Nathan’s famous Parable of the Rings (adapted from earlier sources) in response to the sultan’s question about which is the true faith. Its story concerns a father’s bequest of copies of a blessed ring to each of his three sons, the rings symbolizing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with a judge suggesting that it will require a trial of many ages to determine which is the blessed ring. During that time the brothers are admonished that the true ring will be revealed if they “Vie with each other to prove the power of your ring, through gentleness, tolerance, charity, and a deep humility before the love of God.”
Nathan the Wise’s company offers satisfactory but not especially illuminating support for Abraham’s Jew. His is not a bravura performance, but, except for a few angry or frightened moments, it’s pervaded by Abraham’s unique blend of deep intelligence and impish humor. This production, Kulick’s last before John Doyle takes over the CSC leadership, leaves something to be desired, but the chance to see F. Murray Abraham in a play of such historical (if not dramaturgical) importance should be sufficient for serious theatergoers to trek to East 13th Street.
Nathan the Wise
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through May 1
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).