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January 18, 2008

TT: Funny man gets serious

I review three plays in this week's Wall Street Journal drama column, all in New York and all worth seeing: New Jerusalem, November, and Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. Here's a sample.

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frontpage.jpgDavid Ives, the highbrow clown who writes explosively funny one-act plays about eggheads like Philip Glass and Leon Trotsky, has now given us a deadly serious two-act play about a 17th-century philosopher--and it's good. "New Jerusalem," in which Mr. Ives grapples with matters of life, death and the hereafter, is so disciplined and persuasive a piece of work that it makes me wonder whether the much-praised author of "Polish Joke" and "All in the Timing" might actually have his best days ahead of him.

The long subtitle of Mr. Ives' play, "The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656," is fair warning to casual theatergoers that the laughter in "New Jerusalem," while not nonexistent, will be comparatively scarce. If you passed Philosophy 101, you'll recall that the author of "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" was a pantheistic skeptic who at the far-from-ripe age of 23 was excommunicated by his co-religionists for promulgating the "abominable heresies" summed up three centuries later by Albert Einstein: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." Nothing, however, is known of the trial that brought about Spinoza's expulsion from Talmud Torah save for the formal writ proclaiming his guilt. In the near-complete absence of concrete information about the proceedings, Mr. Ives has cooked up a courtroom drama of his own devising in which the arrogant young philosopher (Jeremy Strong) and the chief rabbi of Amsterdam (Richard Easton) wrestle passionately with the ever-contemporary problem of faith....

Mr. Ives' Spinoza is not a sober-sided thinker but a smug, immature young punk who revels in his own genius ("I do know a few things about God that nobody else does"). By choosing not to portray his hero heroically, Mr. Ives throws the viewer off balance and ups the dramatic ante several notches. He also takes care to leaven his script with pinches of black humor...

David Mamet is out to amuse in "November," his new play about a president (Nathan Lane) whose fathomless cynicism is matched only by his feckless incompetence. "Romance," Mr. Mamet's previous venture into knock-down-drag-out comedy, was funnier, but "November" contains plenty of triphammer punchlines. (Asked to name his price for a political favor, the Chief Executive replies, "I want a number so high even dogs can't hear it.") Though Mr. Lane is in the wrong show--his acting is too fussy--he gets his laughs anyway, mainly through sheer determination...

39stepshuntingtonprod460.jpgIf it's pure fluff you crave, the Roundabout Theatre Company delivers the goods with "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps," a silly sendup of Hitchcock's witty 1935 film version of John Buchan's 1915 thriller. This piece of English toffee is performed by a hard-working cast of four, and much of the fun arises from the fact that two of the actors, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, play most of the parts, changing hats and hurling themselves around the stage with mad abandon. The spoofery, which runs to inch-thick accents, who's-on-first dialogue and nudge-nudge references to other Hitchcock films, is decidedly collegiate...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted January 18, 2008 12:00 AM

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