Written in 1779, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s verse drama Nathan the Wise was not performed until 1783, two years after the German playwright’s death. British translator Edward Kemp, who fashioned the 2003 prose version used for this Classic Stage Company production, has noted that Lessing may never have intended Nathan for production on the stage. The sometimes-static effect of this production suggests that, indeed, the play might work better as closet drama. Certainly what attracts modern readers and audiences is not Lessing’s storytelling prowess but rather his views on the timeless question of whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims can co-exist peaceably.
Lessing’s ideas on religious diversity are perhaps best summarized in an allegorical tale told by Nathan, a successful Jewish merchant living in 12th-century Jerusalem. In Nathan’s parable, a man is unable to choose which of his three sons should inherit a beautiful magic ring that has been handed down through the family for generations. Two copies of the ring are made, so that each son will be gratified. But which of the three rings is the genuine article? And, by extension, which of Jerusalem’s three religions can lay claim to being the sole portal to God’s truth?
Like Kemp’s translation, director Brian Kulick’s staging aims to make the play accessible to 21st-century audiences. The characters behave in a way that is natural and recognizable to us, even when, occasionally, they break into soliloquy. Tony Straiges’ scenic design incorporates a mural-size photographic depiction of ruined modern buildings somewhere in the Middle East—apparent casualties of religious strife. And Anita Yavich’s period costumes include 2016 touches: a flash of modern fabric here, the glimpse of a new-fashioned shoe there.
While Lessing’s musings on questions of faith may be of interest to today’s audiences, his antique scenario never quite seems to click for us. The initial setup seems promising. Nathan (F. Murray Abraham) returns home to Jerusalem after a business journey to learn that, while he was away, his daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) was rescued from a fire by a Christian crusader: a young Knight Templar (Stark Sands). The Templar has recently been spared from execution by Saladin (Austin Durant), the Islamic potentate, because the young man bore a striking resemblance to the ruler’s dead brother. Soon interfaith romance begins to bloom between the Templar and Rachel.
Kulick adds energy to some of the early expositional scenes by having the actors enact in pantomime the events being described. But Lessing’s plot becomes increasingly convoluted as the play progresses. Mistaken identities, long-held secrets, and unlikely coincidences pile up as if in a credulity-stretching Plautian comedy. All of this seems out of tune with Lessing’s serious discussion of religious tolerance.
Abraham will be a chief reason for playgoers to see this production, and his performance is exemplary. Nathan, however, is such a quiet voice of reason, kindness and good humor that there are not many opportunities for the actor to engage in emotional pyrotechnics. Still, Abraham has his moments. When Nathan is forced to revisit a personal tragedy from his past, the actor erupts. And when he does, it’s a brief but memorable episode of spontaneous combustion.
The other actors give solid turns—though I felt Sands pushed a bit hard at times. George Abud brings nuanced comic touches as Nathan’s friend, the dervish Al-Hafi. And Caroline Lagerfelt does good work as Daya, a Christian woman who is Nathan’s worrywart of an aide.