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Theatre in Review: Nathan the Wise (Classic Stage Company)

John Christopher Jones, F. Murray Abraham. Photo: Richard Termine

In 1767, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was assigned to be an in-house critic at the Hamburg National Theatre, thus making him the first dramaturg. One wishes he had subjected his drama Nathan the Wise to some of that critical review. Admittedly, this best-known of Lessing's plays, at least for English-speaking audiences, wasn't produced in his lifetime, but surely a close reading of the text would have revealed how didactic and thoroughly undramatic it is.

Then again, it's quite possible that drama was the last thing on the playwright's mind. Having been prevented from publishing pamphlets that local authorities deemed irreligious, Lessing turned to the stage to make his points, resulting, at least in this case, in a piece that is more tract than theatre. The title character of Nathan the Wise is based on Lessing's close friend Moses Mendelssohn, a German-Jewish philosopher whose writings exemplified the values of the Enlightenment. The story, set in Jerusalem in 1192, spoon-feeds its message of brotherhood to the audience; as an expression of relativism regarding Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, it has all the punch of a public service announcement on late-night television.

In addition to the title character, Lessing's cast includes Daya, the Christian woman who appears to manage Nathan's household; Rachel, Nathan's daughter; Saladin, the Sultan of Jerusalem; and the Templar, a Christian soldier who, for reasons that are at first unclear, is the only Crusader to be pardoned by Saladin. The Templar rescues Rachel from a fire, and she promptly falls in love with him; meanwhile, he retires to a nearby palm grove, snacking on dates. Nathan tries to meet with him, but, Daya warns him, "He won't visit a Jew." If that remark sounds sinister, remarkably very little is made of it. Lessing clearly presents 12th-century Jerusalem as the nexus of three major religions, a natural source of conflict that should, in theory, provide the basis for plenty of drama; yet the overall mood is quizzical, conversational, and surprisingly lacking in tension.

The next major development involves the appearance of Al-Hafi, formerly known as Nathan's dervish -- did one keep dervishes about the house in those days? -- and now Saladin's treasurer. Saladin is hoping to get a loan from Nathan, who isn't so inclined. So Saladin's wily sister, Sittah, hatches a plot: Saladin is to summon Nathan and pose to him a question: "Which code, which law, which faith have you found most enlightening?" The idea is that, not wanting to give offense, Nathan will paper over the situation by offering money. This low-stakes and largely suspense-free situation provides what is possibly the flattest first-act curtain of the entire season.

The centerpiece of Nathan the Wise is the "ring parable," a kind of we-are-the-same-in-the-eyes-of-God tale that, in all probability, would have gotten Nathan's head chopped off in 1192 but must have been soothing to German intellectuals several centuries later. It's a cool bit of wisdom delivered beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who lends an intellectual élan to everything he says. This sequence is followed by a series of revelations more shameless than the end of any of Shakespeare's comedies, in which all sorts of hidden connections between the characters are revealed.

Edward Kemp's translation is highly speakable, but, in condensing it from its original four-and-a-half-hour running time -- this version runs about two hours -- has something critical been lost? Possibly not; one suspects that Nathan the Wise is a collection of speeches without a dramatic motor, an uplifting sermon marked by an Enlightenment sensibility that is light years away from the religious tensions that have turned the Middle East into a permanent war zone. Brian Kulick's production tries various tactics to make the action more relevant, such as having the actors argue with each other in Arabic before the play begins, and, at the top of the second act, forcing everyone to wait while one or two cast members, kneeling on carpets, say their evening prayers. Also, in Tony Straiges' set design, the action is backed by a drop depicting a street, presumably in the Palestinian territories, reduced to rubble; superimposed on it are several lines of Arabic script. Oddly, these touches only tend to underline the overall toothlessness of Lessing's script.

In addition to Abraham, who is always a pleasure to have around, the cast includes Stark Sands, who has little to do but strike manly poses as the Templar; Caroline Lagerfelt, a mainstay of the theatre in the 1980s, making a welcome return as Daya; and John Christopher Jones, suitably doddering as the Christian brother who holds the key to the play's final cascade of revelations. There are also solid contributions from Austin Durant as Saladin, Shiva Kalaiselvan as Sittah, and Erin Neufer as Rachel. Joe Novak's lighting uses a number of subtle touches, including some lovely color washes on the drop, to create a variety of looks and moods. Anita Yavich dresses the actors in modern clothing; as each assumes a character, he or she dons a robe, in black and white with the odd color highlight, adorned with religious symbolism; it's an inventive, attractive solution. Matt Stine's sound design mixes Christian plainsong with the Muslim call to prayer.

During his tenure, now ending, at CSC, Kulick has diligently tried to expand the company's range, digging up lesser-known canonical works and giving them a spin. This approach hasn't always been successful; one can see what attracted him to Nathan the Wise, but the play -- well-spoken and infused with sweet reason -- is barely a play at all, and, furthermore, it dwells in an ivory tower, having little of relevance to say about the religious conflicts that, centuries later, continue to confound civilization. It tries to offer resolution without first showing the conflict. -- David Barbour

(14 April 2016)

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