“We have a story to tell. It happened long ago, but it might be worth hearing today,” says Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham at the start of Classic Stage Company’s Off-Broadway revival of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s rarely-performed 1779 play “Nathan the Wise,” which brings together Christian, Muslim and Jewish characters and promotes an open-minded acceptance of different religions.
It marks the last production to be staged by Brian Kulick during his long tenure as the artistic director of the East Village venue, during which time it has grown in prominence and attracted well-known actors like Dianne Wiest, Peter Sarsgaard and Peter Dinklage. John Doyle, best known for his minimalist-style revivals of Broadway musicals, takes over in the fall.
Set in Jerusalem of 1170, Nathan (Murray) is a wise merchant who, after learning that his daughter (Erin Neufer) was rescued from a fire by a Christian soldier (Stark Sands), is summoned before the ruling sultan (Austin Durant) and asked what religion is the true one.
In reply, Nathan delivers a parable about a father who can only give to one of his three sons a powerful ring that will make its bearer holy in the eyes of god. After each son receives a ring and it’s unclear who got the real one, a judge urges each son to each lead a devout life, rather than rely on a ring to provide goodness.
That part aside, Kulick’s bare and unexciting production doesn’t make a strong case for the German play, which mostly resembles an antiquated comedy full of slow exposition and surprise revelations. Kulick tries to allude to the contemporary Middle East via a massive image of a bombed-out village.
Abraham appears in a jovial mood, full of good humor — a far cry from his Salieri or Shylock. Sands (“Kinky Boots”) gives a one-dimensional performance that is far too aggressive in tone.
If you go
“Nathan the Wise” plays at Classic Stage Company through May 1. 136 W. 13th St., classicstage.org.