OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
The Jerusalem of 1192 in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise,” currently running at Classic Stage Company, is not unlike the Jerusalem of the present: still a divided city with the three major world religions vying for supremacy and claiming with pride a unique claim on being the “sole purveyors of divine revelation.” The Templar (Stark Sands) admonishes Nathan (F. Murray Abraham), “Fine words. But which nation was the first to set itself apart? To say, 'We are the Chosen People.' Well, Nathan? This may not be grounds for hatred, I admit, but can't I still condemn you for your pride? The pride with which you have infected Christian and Muslim alike, to say My G-d Alone Is Right.”
Lessing’s play – more in the style of a late play by Shakespeare than in his contemporary German style – is complex. Its characters are well-rounded and interesting; their conflicts engaging and relevant to the theme of the equality of all religions. Although Jerusalem in 1192 was experiencing a “brief and rare period of peaceful accord between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities,” the key players of each community were involved in anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, and anti-Jewish enterprises elsewhere and the repercussions of those escapades ricocheted between members of the three communities in Jerusalem. These conflicts drive the captivating plot that includes a treasure trove of Shakespearean conventions: mistaken identities; love at first sight; soliloquies; and dramatic irony. There are even moments when one wonders whether Nathan the Wise is delivering lines in iambic pentameter!
It is impossible to rehearse the plot in any detail without disclosing important events that carefully prepare for the play’s surprise ending. It is enough to say that Nathan is the play’s gatekeeper who negotiates, bargains, confounds, and energizes the rest of the characters. Nathan is the play’s moral compass although even he is tempted sometimes by exclusive loyalty to his faith. F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Nathan is nothing short of brilliant and the quintessence of exquisite acting. Mr. Abraham is fully present in every moment he is on stage. His character charms his adopted daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer), Daya the Christian servant in his house (Caroline Lagerfelt) and constantly attempts to negotiate peace between Saladin (Austin Durant), the Patriarch (Caroline Lagerfelt) and the Brother (John Christopher Jones), the Templar (Stark Sands) who rescues his daughter from a fire after being spared by Saladin, and the “Jester” of the cast Al-Hafi (George Abud).
The play’s turning point comes when Nathan responds to Saladin’s challenge to identify “which code, which law, which faith have you found most enlightening?” Nathan tells the iconic story of the rings as his answer and provides the clear purpose for Lessing’s play: “Maybe this was your father's plan, to end the tyranny of the single ring. It's clear he loved you all, and loved you equally: why should he disadvantage two by favoring one? You could do worse than follow his example, strive towards such unprejudiced affection in yourselves. Vie with each other to prove the power of your ring, through gentleness, tolerance, charity, and a deep humility before the love of G-d.”
Under Brian Kulick’s artful and efficient direction, the equally accomplished ensemble cast successfully negotiates Lessing’s path to forgiveness and reconciliation embodying Nathan’s words, “Because G-d rewards the good we do on earth on earth as well. And you must learn this: dreams are easy, deeds are hard. Imagine angels all you like but let them inspire you to action, not distract you from it.” Tony Straiges’ set, Anita Yavich’s language and symbol coded costumes, and Joe Novak’s lighting all serve to give the production a splendid effulgence.
At the beginning of the play, Saladin introduces the play and the cast of characters in modern Arabic. Some members of the audience understand; however, the majority sit in silence waiting to somehow be rescued. It is difficult to understand when one’s own language is not being spoken and heard. Language and religion are closely connected in “Nathan the Wise” and much of what confounds the residents of Jerusalem in 1192 continues to confound the global community in the present. Failure to understand leads to fanaticism and intolerance which are both dangerous and insidious companions.
Perhaps the Templar summarized the dilemma best, ““I don't believe we ever lose the superstitions of our race. We drink them in with our mother's milk, and we may mock them but they are bred into our bones.” But Saladin’s words are those that give us hope, “Above all say nothing of this to the fanatics of your faith. Never be a Christian to spite a Jew. Or a Muslim.” Therein lies hope for tolerance and peace.
NATHAN THE WISE
The cast of “Nathan the Wise” includes F. Murray Abraham, George Abud, Austin Durant, John Christopher Jones, Shiva Kalaiselvan, Caroline Lagerfelt, Erin Neufer and Stark Sands. Set design is by Tony Straiges, costumes by Anita Tavich, lighting by Joe Novak and sound by Matt Stine. Production photos by Richard Termine.
“Nathan the Wise” will perform Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $60.00 on weeknights and $65.00 on weekends and are available at www.classicstage.org or by calling (212) 352-3101 / 866-811-4111 or at the box-office at 136 East 13th Street, New York City (between Third and Fourth Avenues). Running time is two hours with one intermission