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David Ives, best known for his snappy comedic phrasing in All the Timing and this year’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, has returned with Off Broadway’s New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza, a play chronicling the 1656 punishment of young philosopher who was expelled from his Jewish community for his radical ideas. Ives spoke with Vulture about fate, avoiding his homework, and other crush-worthy playwrights throughout the ages.
Let’s start with the subject matter. What’s the deal with Baruch de Spinoza?
I read Spinoza when I was at Yale drama school, and I don’t actually remember why. It was probably because it was Spinoza and he was supposed to be important. Maybe I was just avoiding my schoolwork.
That’s a pretty heavy procrastination tool.
I know. I must have been pretty desperate! I think that what grabbed me was there is a paragraph in one of his works which he talks about how he set out to find continuous supreme and everlasting happiness. Then a couple years ago, I read that Einstein, in his old age, was asked if he believed in God and he said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” So I picked up this book called The Courtier and the Heretic, and I thought, My God, this is an amazing story. Sort of a Greek tragedy, the story of a young man whose community has to shut him out in order to survive in Amsterdam. I took a huge number of notes, and I couldn’t let go of it, so I just sat down and wrote the play quite quickly, probably within a week or ten days.
What do you think about the casting?
Baruch means blessed, and I am certainly blessed with this cast — especially Jeremy Strong in the lead. In fact there is an odd coincidence with Jeremy: Walter and I were in despair about finding someone to play Spinoza, because you need an actor who can play 25 and be a genius, which is hard. Neither Walter nor I knew [Jeremy] or his work. And he appeared and he looks just like Spinoza. He’s got those big, dark eyes and those soulful features. And he said to me, “It is so odd that I am reading for this play of yours. I read a book about Spinoza just before the agent sent me this and I was fascinated by him, and then after I agreed to do the reading, my mother called me up from Massachusetts and asked me, ‘Do you know a playwright named David Ives?’ And I said yes. And she said, ‘Well I just showed him and his wife some country houses up here.’” So this looked like fate. I mean Spinoza’s all about determinism, and here we were being determined. Things just kind of fell together on this show in a way that makes me worry all the time.
Because it’s too perfect?
Yes, just too perfect.
Your other play on Broadway, Is He Dead?, is a Mark Twain play. How’s that going?
Well, I couldn’t imagine a play more opposite to Spinoza unless Spinoza put on a dress! I call Is He Dead? a Twains-vestite farce, but it’s not an empty farce. It’s about the value of art. It’s a satire on the art world. It was quite odd to be walking from 42nd Street, Mark Twain, and a man in a dress to 13th Street, seventeenth-century Amsterdam, and a man in a yarmulke. I did it one day; I walked from preview to rehearsal, and it was very bizarre.
Because of the mind switch?
I was like the girl in The Exorcist with her head turning around. It was great fun to inhabit those two worlds almost simultaneously. But comedy to me is not less serious than serious plays. I love what W.H. Auden said, “Comedy is the noblest form of stoicism.” And Spinoza was as stoic in a way as well with his ease in the world. And so even though they seem to be quite different, they both feel like me in some sense. Or I should say me and Mark Twain. Twain helped out in the Spinoza play as well; he kept wanting to throw in jokes.
You have said that you have a little crush on Spinoza.
Platonic, totally platonic!
Sure… Are there any other historical figures that you have a crush on that we might see something about in the future?
Well, who doesn’t have a crush on Bill Shakespeare? He’s pretty cute. Those soulful eyes. —Lauren Salazar