A picture of a decrepit, present-day Jerusalem neighborhood is projected behind the actors, who sit in a row of chairs when they are not onstage. They begin out of costume and inform the audience they are about to tell a story; during intermission, two perform the Muslim evening prayer. The impetus, I assume, behind this revival of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play, Nathan the Wise, is that it remains relevant to us today. After all, its plea for peaceful religious plurality—and its setting in the Middle East—certainly speaks to its parallels with our time.
Nathan (F. Murray Abraham), known equally for his goodness, his wealth, and his wisdom, is a Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem in 1192, near the end of the Third Crusade. Think of him as a rehabilitated Shylock. He returns home to find that his daughter, Rachel (Erin Neufer), has been saved from a fire by a Knight of Templar (Stark Sands). Though the Templar initially dismisses the family, he is impressed by Nathan and soon falls in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, Saladin (Austin Durant), the conqueror of Jerusalem, attempts to secure a loan from Nathan while awaiting treasure from Egypt, though he, too, finds himself won over by the merchant’s wisdom. All this relative stability, however, begins to crack when it is revealed that Rachel is adopted and “was born a Christian, to Christian parents, baptized by them.” If discovered, Nathan’s decision to raise her as a Jew would have serious legal consequences.
Forbidden by the church during Lessing’s lifetime, Nathan the Wise has today lost most if not all of its radical power. Its central message (that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all share essentially the same religion) is a vast oversimplification, and its ancillary one (that all should live together in peace) will be obvious to anyone in attendance, however much they may applaud themselves for murmuring in agreement throughout the play’s platitudes. This after school special morality does little for me, especially since tolerance is so easily won among Lessing’s characters. There is never any sense of danger (or, for that matter, of religious hatred), a tone that feels disingenuous considering the very real threat of death that would have hung over all these people. The story of the Crusades—and, indeed, of Jerusalem today—is one of mass suffering and discord, not of enlightened men embracing one another and nodding at the superficial and curious differences between their faiths.
Nathan the Wise runs through May 1st at the Classic Stage Company. 136 E. 13th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 5 minutes. One intermission.