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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In two British plays that officially opened Off-Broadway within a week of each other we have two Mums whose sons are the cause of more tsoris or trouble than naches. Rachel, the Jewish mother in Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years has schlepped nothing but worry from her son Josh who has allowed his academic achievements to fizzle and hasn't held so much as a single job. The mother and titular character in Grace has had somewhat better luck. Her son Tom has had more religious leanings than one would expect from the son of such a strong anti-religionist and her more open-minded but non-observant Jewish husband, Tony. However, he has made use of his education to become a naches worthy achiever, a lawyer with an attractive girl friend who is also a lawyer.
But, alas and alack, or oy veh, both Josh and Tom move in directions that shake up their Mums. Josh suddenly begins seeing a rabbi and observing orthodox customs which is totally counter to his parents' assimilated, non-kosher life style. Tony quits the law and announces his decision to become an Episcopal priest. Grace, who had a rigidly strict Christian upbringing and became a professor of natural science and a militant atheist or, as she prefers to call herself, a naturalist, is not just nonplussed but outraged. She views his choice as a personal failure.
It's wonderful and fascinating to have a chance to see how these similar basic plot set-ups can result in two decidedly different plays. Both have been given lovely productions with splendid performers to deflect their shortcomings.
While Two Thousand Years is a comedy but with a larger and more serious subtext, Grace is more intensely sober-minded, in its metaphysical exploration of major philosophical issues. It does have its comic moments, most courtesy of Philip Goodwin's endearing portrayal as Grace's husband (especially in a scene in which he persuades his son and wife to illustrate his theory that "dancing is what makes people happy."), but it is in no way a comedy. If I had to give it a genre classification, it would be as a tragedy with a thinly disguised polemical bent.
The often debate-like dialogue can be attributed to the fact one of the authors, AC Grayling, is a Professor of Philosophy. However, with Lynn Redgrave as the unyieldingly angry and opinionated Grace, and the excellent Goodwin and Oscar Isaac as her husband and son, and K.K. Moggie as Tom's girlfriend, there's plenty of emotional involvement with all four of the play's characters.
The major plot conflict stems from Grace's outraged reaction to her son's new life plan. Goodwin and Moggie are much more than minor support players. Tony is a marvelously warm creation and Ruth, (a finely tuned performance by Moggie) has her own story which meaningfully connects to her relationship with Tom and his family.
To the authors' credit, they have turned the basic situation of Tom's calling to the priesthood and the resulting effect on an especially close mother-son relationship into a drama that not only forces Grace to deal with the underlying motives for her hostility to religion but with the deeper despair prompted by a devastating disaster after Tom assumes his priestly calling. Redgrave masterfully navigates Grace's coolheaded intellectualism and emotional deep freeze, finally expressing her stored-up pain with a scream that seems ripped from the very core of her being.
To establish the sense of a powerful woman in need of help, Grace starts of with an intriguing and slightly futuristic scene which has Grace participating in a procedure administered by an unseen American Professor, Michael Persinger (the voice of Robert Emmett Lunney) in Canada. As we learn from the exchange between the two professors, the "God Helmet" placed momentarily Grace's head to transmit electronic signals simulate the experience of feeling the presence of someone. In Grace's case that other worldly presence is not God but that someone is what gives the play its metaphysical twist.
With just a little help from Tony Osts scrim panels and Matthew Richards' moody lighting, director Joseph Hardy moves the actors from location to location with nothing concrete to indicate the frequent shifts in time and space. These transitions do however, prompt a caveat: All this fluidity can be disorienting and make it hard to locate oneself in the events of the characters' lives. But in the end there's no confusion about where Grace's tortured journey through shock, anger and unanticipted tragic events have taken her.
Sure it's a polemical talkfest, but with Redgrave and her fine colleagues to do the talking, make that a talkfeast.
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide