Nathan The Wise

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday April 14, 2016

F. Murray Abraham & George Abud
F. Murray Abraham & George Abud  

"Nathan the Wise" is one of those works that lots of people know about, but very few know. Until enjoying the Classic Stage Company's superior update of this "drama of ideas," I could be counted among them.

I knew that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing reportedly based the title character on his good friend Moses Mendelssohn, the first European Jew to break into European society on his own terms; that it was a plea for religious tolerance; and was the first European work to depict a Jew in an unrestrictedly admiring way.

But don't let that scare you off, the way it nearly did me. "Nathan the Wise" is a rollicking tall tale, full of crazy coincidences, lost and found children, mistaken identity. What's so surprising -- and a little scary -- is how urgently needed is its message that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all equally beloved by the Abrahamic god.

The action takes place in an idyllic vision of the Crusades, where the sultan Saladan the Magnificent has taken back Jerusalem, at least for the time being. The Latin Patriarch enjoys his protection, as do the Jews who managed to escape the Crusaders indiscriminate massacre.

The real location, however, isn't 11th Century Jerusalem, but the Europe of the late 18th Century. At least that's the only way to make sense of unmarried girls as forward as Lizzy Bennett and a Knight Templar whose commitment to not only his cause but Christianity is a lot more pliable than the knights of history.

This knight, who connects all of the characters in all sorts of ways, meets and is immediately smitten with Nathan's daughter, and, considering he's played by Stark Sands, who initiated lead roles in both "American Idiot" and "Kinky Boots," it's no spoiler to reveal that the feeling quickly becomes mutual.

The virtuous, handsome gentile man falling for the beautiful Jewess is a longstanding plot device, from Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" through to Chava in "Fiddler on the Roof" and Katie Morosky in the film "The Way We Were." What's so terrific hers is the way Lessing sets this gimmick on its head. The guy was way ahead of today's playwrights and screenwriters!

Heading the cast in a fantastic performance is F. Murray Abraham. The winner of the Best Acting Oscar for "Amadeus," Abraham's first love has always been the stage, and it loves him right back. He tones down the (kosher) ham here but lets 'er rip when necessary in a climactic scene. But the entire cast shines.

I have no doubt that this 2003 version of the play takes great liberties with the literal translation of the German. Not only is nothing of importance lost in this freewheeling adaptation, however, but much is gained in audience engagement, especially given Brian Kulik's innovative and fast-moving direction.

CSC has done such a great job in bringing neglected classics like this to the attention of New York audiences. Giving a city as diverse as New York a chance to revel in the great way Lessing makes philosophy real through characters and plot was an inspiration, especially in this troubled political season.

If you're still scared that seeing this will be the theatrical equivalent of eating plain oatmeal -- good for you, but boring and not very tasty -- let me reiterate: Try it. You'll like it.

"Nathan the Wise" runs through May 2 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. in the East Village. For tickets and information, call 866-811-4111 or visit the website.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).