Picaresque spy story of a free thinking philosopher (and his some time lover) recruited by the Vatican for an impossible mission: to prevent the Thirty Years War.

Nov 9 – 26, 2023
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave.
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thu, Fri, Sat at 8:00 PM, Sun at 3:00 PM
No performance Thanksgiving, Nov. 23. Added show Wed, 11/22 at 8:00 PM.
Tickets $18; students and seniors $15
Buy tickets:
Box office phone 212-254-1109
Show's website:
Running time: 2 hours incl. intermission
Critics are invited on or after Friday, November 10 (openimg date).

NEW YORK, November 10 -- "Spies for the Pope" by Douglas Lackey is a sweeping historical drama that charts the tragic career of Giulio Caesare Vanini (1585-1619), an Italian philosopher recruited by the Vatican, in Lackey’s telling, for an impossible mission: stopping the Thirty Years War by reconciling through diplomacy the Catholic and Protestant antagonisms of key European countries. Theater for the New City (TNC), which has been Lackey's theatrical home since 2003, will present the work's premiere run November 9 to 26. Director is Alexander Harrington, who has collaborated with Lackey on four prior plays and shares his interest in historical drama. All of Lackey’s previous plays have been praised for their deft mixtures of philosophy, romance and politics.

Giulio Cesare Vanini, the Italian philosopher, scientist and “the prince of libertines,” was among the first Western scientists to view the world as entirely governed by natural laws. His attempts to remain loyal to both science and religion led to his execution in 1619 on a false charge of atheism. Admirers of Vanini in the 19th century placed a plaque on the site of his execution reading “to a martyr for freedom of thought.” In 2015 the plaque was spray-painted by an anonymous fanatic with the words “He got what he deserved.” The audience is invited to reach its own verdict on this question.

The play is a continent-trotting, picaresque spy story. It unfolds with two Capuchin Friars, Vanini and his companion (and some time lover) Brother Markus, crusading for Catholicism across Europe. Markus proves to be a dangerous acolyte who is progressively susceptible to the Protestant cause. Vanini himself falls under the spell of Elizabeth Stuart, the Protestant daughter of the England's King James I, who was briefly the Queen of Bohemia. Her husband’s ambitions are a precipitating factor of the coming war.

Vanini’s desperate pleas for peace in the capitals of Bohemia, England, The Netherlands and France only manage to reveal deeper and deeper contrasts between the worldviews of the opposing sides, a clash of ideologies against which reason cannot prevail. When tenets of faith (like the reality of transubstantiation) become fighting words, the status of science becomes a political issue, and the philosopher Descartes ("I think therefore I am") is dragged into the fight. Only music can provide respite for Vanini and Elizabeth and songs from Dowland and Monteverdi are woven into their scenes.

Eric Loscheider plays Giulio Cesare Vanini and Jordan Stidham plays Brother Markus. Courtney Stennett plays Princess Elizabeth. The ensemble includes Pat Dwyer, Joseph J. Menino, Brian Ott and Daniel Yaiullo.

Scenic designer is Jennifer Varbalow. Lighting designer is Corey Goulden-Naitove. Costume designer is Anthony Paul-Cavaretta. Projection Designer is Daniel McKleinfeld. Animator is Gabriel Freire. Movement Specialist is Caitlin Rigney. Fight Choeographer is JaneAnne Halter. Production Stage Manager is Roger Lipson. Production Manager is Mitchell Strong.

Playwright Douglas Lackey has two lives, as a playwright and a philosophy professor. He is a Professor of Philosophy at Baruch College, CUNY, where he has taught since 1972. He has an 18 year relationship with Theater for the New City, which has presented all his plays to-date. His first play, "Kaddish in East Jerusalem" (2003), dealt with issues of the Second Intifada. His "Daylight Precision" (2014) was a historical drama examining "just war" theories through an unsung hero of World War II, Gen. Haywood Hansell. In 2018, his "Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story" dramatized the unlikely romance between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. His "Ludwig and Bertie" (2019) charted the forty-year love/hate relationship between Bertrand Russell and his most famous student, Ludwig Wittgenstein. His "The Wayward Daughter of Judah the Prince" (2021) was a sort of a philosopher's "Thelma and Louise" in which the daughter of Judah the Prince (compiler of The Mishnah--the core section of The Talmud) runs off with her Christian slave girl lover to measure herself against the conflicting philosophies of the period. These plays have been critically praised as explosive dramas of ideas, romance and politics.

Lackey writes, "I am grateful to Crystal Field and Theater for the New City for encouraging me to present this story. TNC is willing to take on my 'comedies of ideas' and these are quite different from the contemporary obsession with plays of jumbled identities and failed relationships. Kudos to a theater that will buck the mainstream."

Director Alexander Harrington staged the premieres of Douglas Lackey's "The Wayward Daughter of Judah the Prince" (2021), "Ludwig and Bertie" (2019), "Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story" (2018) and "Daylight Precision" (2014). He has directed in New York theaters at Metropolitan Playhouse, La MaMa, The Culture Project, Queens Theatre, and The Actors Studio and at regional theaters.  He founded The Eleventh Hour Theatre Company and in 2012 was artistic director of the student ensemble at HB Studio. He has directed his own adaptations of Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," Chekhov's short story "The Kiss," a chapter from Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" titled "The Philosopher," and his own translation of Aeschylus' "Agamemnon." He wrote "The Great Society," a play about Lyndon Johnson [not to be confused with Robert Schenkkan's play of the same name on the same subject], which premiered at the Harold Clurman Theater in 2013.  Harrington takes a special interest in classics and has directed numerous productions of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. He has also developed and directed numerous contemporary plays and is a widely published essayist and critic. (


"This was a clever intellectual and philosophical play that was disguised as an action adventure quest…The acting and production values were superb…You will learn a lot and be entertained at the same time. What more can you ask for?" -- Eva Heinemann, Hi Drama

"Lackey is a master at bringing philosophy out of the dusty corners of academia and putting them on a very passion filled center stage. As with his previous works produced at Theater for a New City, 'Daylight Precision' (2014) and 'Arendt;Heidegger: a love story' (2018), 'Ludwig and Bertie' is a victory for smart theater." -- Rachel de Aragon, Berkshire Fine Arts

"The play is a remarkable achievement on two levels: on one level, it provides an exhaustive explication of their respective philosophies (which even those most familiar with the concepts underlying analytic philosophy should find informative and educational).  And on another level, it also provides an entertaining theatrical experience for those less committed to the nuances of philosophical thought in its explorations of these men's personae." -- Alan Miller, A Seat On The Aisle

"This is a fascinating play with a solid cast. It will leave you pondering the philosophical theories for days." -- Brenda Repland, Eyes on World Cultures.

"Both [Russell and Wittgenstein] are considered major 20th century philosophers; their relationship, from their first meeting in Cambridge in 1911 until Wittgenstein's death in 1951, underwent the human and intellectual turbulence usually encountered between father and son....The juxtaposition of these contradictory personalities promises explosive drama, perhaps more than can be contained in one session of theater....Alexander Bartenieff's subtle lighting design helps to sharpen the attention while the costume design by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta beautifully adds to the personality of a character as well as the shifts of period style in the play....The actors maintain the sharp personality contrasts and manage the dialogue alternating between rather complicated philosophical theorems (in merciful snippets) and private conundrums with persuasive clarity. -- Beate Hein Bennet, New York Theatre Wire

"Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story," though small scenewise, is huge in its character-driven, thought-provoking ideas, many of which, like racism (both genuine and opportunistic), along with the emergence of right-wing autocratic nationalism, like a virus gone wild, appears to be on the rise around the globe. It is a timely play to say the least. -- Edward Rubin,

This play is mesmerizing in its many now-familiar aspects to our current situation. The casting is perfect, making the story ever so plausible. " --- Brenda Repland, Eyes on World Cultures

"Our highest recommendation! A thoroughly enthralling drama of ideas, romance, and politics – worthy of the great tradition of Shaw and Ibsen. This show will engage your heart and your mind at the deepest levels." -- Ronald Gross, NY Theatre Buying Guide

"Author Douglas Lackey and director Alexander Harrington have managed to extract a thought provoking stimulating performance from two of the most controversial public intellects of the twentieth century: Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a German-Jewish philosopher and social theorist and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the most renowned German philosophers to have succumbed to Nazism. The subject of their romantic entanglement, in conjunction with their political trajectories over the course of forty years, from the mid 1920s to 1964, is the dramatic core of this play in a series of 23 concisely scripted scenes." -- Beate Hein Bennett, NY Theatre Wire

"sweeps us back to an all but forgotten World War II and its tangle of moral questions that still won't go away" – Jerry Tallmer, NY Theatre Wire

"Lackey's play and the direction by Alexander Harrington and fine work by the ensemble cast allow [General Haywood] Hansell to soar back in command as we appreciate his efforts and are reminded that bombing women and children serves no rational military purpose." -- Carole Di Tosti, NYC Skyline

"In light of today's stealth and drone bombings in the middle east, the play is a meditation on the value, or lack thereof, of collateral damage in war….One walks away from the experience feeling more intimately involved in the day-to-day anxieties of the war, from which there is now so much distance, and extremely grateful for not having had to been involved."--JK Clarke, Theatre Pizzazz

# # #

Critics are invited on or after Friday, November 10 (openimg date).