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THEATER BEAT : Revival of German Classic at Harman

March 19, 1993

Leave it to Martin Magner, still directing at 93, to come up with an obscure German classic first revived by Goethe in 1801.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's "Nathan the Wise" (1779) is a plea for religious and racial tolerance. Its lingering legacy is that it was burned by the Nazis because of its brotherly view of Muslim, Jewish and Christian characters.

The play's relevance to today's L.A. is obvious, and Magner's staging at the Harman Avenue Theatre cuts out the preachiness and makes the stickboard characters human. But the play's eloquence (in Carl R. Mueller's translation) is barely heard. Despite the warm efforts of Ari Barak as the Jew Nathan who gives a Christian knight (Tim Didlake) permission to marry his daughter (Shannon Bradley), it's pretty stiff going.

By modern standards, Nathan's tale of the three rings (borrowed from Boccaccio's "Decameron") is too childlike to make much moral impact. Yet there's a calmness about the play that resonates.

Set in Palestine at the time of the Crusades, Don Gruber's design captures the desert aura of tiled palaces, cloisters and palm trees.

But except for patrons from the Goethe Institut and the co-sponsoring German Cultural Center, "Nathan the Wise" remains largely a curiosity piece.

* "Nathan the Wise," Harman Avenue Theatre, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., E nds April 3. $13. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours.

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