It's a new year - and everyone makes resolutions. Make one you can keep: Go to the theater. It is my preferred house of worship - and I go to temple regularly. Especially now, because original American dramas are on a tear. The first must-see, which may come to be regarded as a modern classic, is August: Osage County. Think Edward Albee meets Eugene O'Neill by way of black comedy. Now at the Imperial Theater, this riveting new drama focuses on the Weston family - particularly, their nasty little secrets, which are endless.
Led by Violet, a pill-popping Midwest matriarch (an astounding Denna Dunagan), and boasting the original Steppenwolf cast, which is roundly excellent, Osage County is a potent tale about family dysfunction, unrequited love and the infinite ways in which we rob each other of humanity. Violet is joined by her three troubled daughters and their extended family. No one emerges unscathed. Though their troubles are legion - and every conceivable social scandal is visited - they leave you, as the great acting teacher Stella Adler, advised, always wanting more.
So does The Farnsworth Invention, though for very different reasons. The Aaron Sorkin play, which pits RCA's chief David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) against inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), is an examination of creativity and morality. The issue is the invention of television, and, since it's written by Sorkin, the talent behind TV's Emmy-winning "West Wing," the production sides with Farnsworth. The play at The Music Box offers crisp dialogue, solid performances and a compelling quandary: Which man is entitled to the patent? The answer means billions in future revenue.
Sarnoff had great dreams for TV as a cultural tool to uplift the masses. And when the audience - sadly -- laughs at his vision, we all suffer. Conversely, Farnsworth is an inventor savant; he's captivated by technological challenges. Yet he's not a lone voice in the wilderness. Several prominent scientists also hope to create a picture tube with sound. In fact, at the Museum of the Moving Image, both Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin are credited with the discovery. One developed the dissector tube for electronic scanning (Farnsworth), the other (Zworykin) the kinescopic tube. Combining their work created a new medium. Farnsworth is a nuanced, albeit largely fictional account of its controversial genesis. Still, it raises the ultimate question: Who owns the means of production? If you guessed the big, bad corporation, you win.
Often, the odds are with the house - even if it's 17th-century Amsterdam and the house, in this instance, is the Dutch government. The setting: a synagogue in Amsterdam. The time: 1656. The issue: deciding the fate of Baruch Spinoza. The moment is monumental - a brilliant, radical philosopher who redefines the nature of God is pitted against the Dutch establishment, whose vaunted "tolerance" is finite. The Jews, persecuted throughout Europe, have found reasonably safe haven. Now a religious backlash has gripped the city, and Spinoza's ideas are suspect. The Dutch charge him with being an atheist. The label is lethal, and the authorities pressure the Jewish community to act: silence him or banish him.
Now playing at Classic Stage Company, New Jerusalem is a riveting work by David Ives that posits the political and religious realities of 17th-century Jews, the mind-set of genius and the horrors of state censorship. Today, Spinoza is championed as one of the greatest philosophers of all time - laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. His opus, Ethics, is a philosophical staple.
While there are no records of the kherem (excommunication), Ive's fictionalized account of the event is fascinating and heartbreaking. New Jerusalem makes philosophy sexy, thanks to taut writing and direction and the performances of Jeremy Strong as the engaging Spinoza, Richard Easton as Rabbi Mortiera and David Garrison as the Dutch inquisitor. As Spinoza is put on trial, it's clear his brethren are loath to act. Once the debate ratchets up - and alternate explanations for God and nature are discussed - we're treated to a lively treatise on the nature of existence and the real issue that haunted the Dutch: free speech.
Whether Spinoza is secular or devout, atheist or believer, is still a debate. Several recent bios attempt to mine the life of a quiet man whose most famous works were published posthumously. New Jerusalem tackles complex themes with dramatic flair, assuring its audience a thoughtful and provocative experience.