In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's "Nathan the Wise," now at the Lillian Theater, a bloody war ravages the Middle East. Jerusalem is the flashpoint.
But the setting isn't modern-day Israel; it's the Third Crusade in 1192.
If Lessing's 18th-century German classic feels contemporary, it is because the tension among Jews, Muslims and Christians resonates in today's political climate, according to producer Alan Friedenthal.
The founder of the fledgling Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre, he said he chose "Nathan" to kick off his debut season because, "we wanted to make a statement with something topical."
Lessing's drama, adapted by Richard Sewell, revolves around a virtuous Jewish merchant, his adopted Christian daughter, a fanatical Christian patriarch and a benevolent sultan leader. In the most memorable sequence, the merchant Nathan tells a parable of three rings given to three sons, one of them real, the others clever fakes.
"That serves as a metaphor for the three religions, with no way of knowing which is the one true faith," Sewell told The Journal. "It's a profoundly modern play because the message is that whatever one's convictions, one's first obligation is to one's humanity. That transcends the transcendence of religion."
In fact, current events have caused the play -- seldom performed outside Europe -- to enjoy several recent American revivals, including a 2002 run at New York's Pearl Theater and a public television version.
In the acclaimed Lillian Theater production, perhaps the first ever in Los Angeles, the present-day angle is enhanced by costumes combining historical and contemporary elements. The Sultan's sister wears a suit by Yves Saint Laurent, for example, while the Knight Templar sports chain mail and gray leather.
"My goal was to show that nothing has really changed in 1,000 years," director Pavel Cerny said. "There's still a lack of tolerance among the religions, and the terrorism we're seeing today is a part of that."
If "Nathan the Wise" feels both timely and timeless, it is because Lessing was a man ahead of his time, according to Cerny. The son of a preacher, he surprised his parents with letters proclaiming that religious beliefs should not be blindly inherited from one's family. His 1747 drama, "The Jew," angered observers by depicting a virtuous Jewish character amid less-than-noble Christian ones. "Nathan the Wise" -- modeled after his friend, Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn -- elicited even more public criticism.
Almost two centuries later, the piece was banned by Hitler; it was among the first plays staged in Berlin after World War II. "The production took place in a bombed-out theater with many concentration camp survivors present," Cerny said. "It must have been very powerful."
The journey of "Nathan the Wise" to Los Angeles began with Friedenthal, a Superior Court judicial officer who had long dreamed of founding his own Jewish theater. He said he was encouraged to do so by his mentor, the late great Broadway producer Arthur Cantor ("The Tenth Man"), for whom he had served as an attorney on productions such as "Beau Jest."
Friedenthal often visited Cantor in his vast apartment in Manhattan's famed Dakota. When he mentioned he was founding the Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre, Cantor made a "significant" contribution toward its debut production, the attorney said.
While Friedenthal's theater joins several other Jewish companies in Los Angeles, including the West Coast Jewish Theater and Los Angeles Jewish Theater, he hopes to stand out by offering a season of fully staged, Jewish-themed productions in a 99-seat house.
He had already discovered "Nathan the Wise" in a theater anthology when Cerny mentioned it as a possibility to launch the season. The only problem was that existing translations were old-fashioned and lacked the poetry of Lessing's blank verse.
The issue was solved when Friedenthal read about Sewell's new adaptation in The New York Times last year; Cerny went on to cast the play with ethnically varied actors "because we wanted to mirror the friendship that develops among the diverse characters in the play."
Audience members have burst into applause at several points during the show, Cerny said.
"They recognize that the plea for brotherhood is as much about today as about the 12th century," he said.
Lillian Theater, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 293-7257.