Nathan the Wise
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Nathan the Wise: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Brian Kulick, who has led Classic Stage Company for 12 years, is departing it at the end of this season, and Nathan the Wise is the last show he is directing during his tenure. It is an elegant and apt parting gift that sums up much of his approach to the company over the years: Thoughtful and sincere, it combines a dramaturg’s love of theater history with a yen to connect today’s headlines to yesterday’s footnotes.
Written in 1779 by Germany’s Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the play is a beacon of Enlightenment values. It takes place in 1192 Jerusalem, amid the carnage of the Third Crusade, and imagines a tentative network of friendship among Jews, Christians and Muslims there. (Lessing, a Lutheran, was friends with Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.) The play’s love-thy-neighbor gloss on religion as a familial and cultural force, as opposed to a single discoverable truth, got it banned during Lessing’s lifetime.
This may sound a tad academic, and perhaps it is. Nathan the Wise’s measured yet impassioned plea for tolerance, though finely rendered—especially in a lovely central fable about a ring—is uncontroversial to most New Yorkers’ ears today. Although Kulick suggests parallels with the modern Middle East (the backdrop depicts a bombed-out city, and a framing device finds the actors in modern dress), this comes off more as a concept than a vision. But the play is gently engaging on its own terms. The marvelous F. Murray Abraham, as the rich Jewish trader of the title, brings worldly wit to his early scenes and Biblical fire to his harrowing climactic monologue. There are charming love scenes between Nathan’s daughter (Erin Neufer) and the impetuous Templar (a mercurial Stark Sands), who has rescued her from a fire, and tasty bits by George Abud as a preening dervish and John Christopher Jones as a shambling monk. After a mostly discursive first act, the plot shifts into a suspenseful sequence of twists and revelations akin to those in the later plays of Shakespeare. Once again, Kulick has applied a judicious highlighter to a worthy text, and the result is a virtuous envoi.—Adam Feldman
Classic Stage Company (Off Broadway). By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Directed by Brian Kulick. With F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands. Running time: 2hrs 5mins. One intermission.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam