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A CurtainUp Review
Two Thousand Years

How come a scientifically-minded university graduate brought up in a respectable secular household turns to God?.—Dave, upon seeing his grandson wearing a skullcap.
Two Thousand Years
Jordan Gelber as the son who's sudden interest in Jewish orthodoxy throws his assimilated, non-observant family into an uproar. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Mike Leigh has called Two Thousand Years his Jewish play. Because this comic look at what it means to be Jewish to long assimilated and non-observant Jews like him ended a twelve-year absence from the stage, the London premiere at London's National Theatre sold out immediately, even though Leigh's improvisational style of writing and directing meant that no information as to its content was available.

review continues below

Two Thousand Years has now arrived in New York. It's no longer shrouded in mystery and, while the playwright isn't on hand to direct it as he did in London, he couldn't wish for a director more attuned to his work than Scott Elliott, the artistic director of the New Group. Elliott launched the well-regarded company with another Leigh play, Ecstacy. Other Leigh-Elliott productions that have been well done and received by the New Group followed: Goose-Pimples (1997-98), Smelling a Rat (2001-02) and my own favorite, Abigail's Party (2005-06). Since I like Leigh's films (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy) and have found his plays fun to watch, I had high expectations for Two Thousand Years despite my colleague Brian Clover's reservations when he reviewed it in London.

There is indeed much to admire and enjoy in this New York premiere. Elliott has been true to Leigh's intent of examining the Israel politic (actually, the entire world politic) through the lens of the relationship between members of an ordinary, if rather extraordinarily volatile and dysfunctional Jewish family. As he has with previous Leigh plays, Elliott has taken great care to capture the characters' mundane gestures and conversations and has smartly used incidental music by the Klezmatics to bridge the blackouts between scenes which, in some instances, end almost as soon as they begin. His actors convincingly and amusingly (this IS a comedy!) grapple with their characters' familial and worldly concerns and, thanks to Stephen Gabis, the theater's busiest dialect coach, their Britspeak is quite authentic. However, while the play entertainingly marries the personal and political as he often done, Two Thousand Years is a few notches below top tier Leigh.

Brian Clover's prediction that the plot would undergo changes and referential updates hasn't really materialized. While we saw different casts, the text seems unchanged. Consequently, I'm incorporating some of his plot synopsis into mine.

The middle generation of the family under Leigh's microscope is a decent, middle-class London couple — Rachel (Laura Esterman), a traditional homemaker her dentist husband Danny (Richard Masur) who fancies himself a great joke teller ("An American, Russian Chinaman and Israeli were asked 'Excuse me, but what is your opinion on the meat shortage?' The American asked: 'What is shortage?'; the Russian asked 'What is meat?'; the Chinaman asked 'What is opinion?' and the Israeli asked 'What is excuse me?") They are caring, compassionate and comfortably settled in the tidy living room of a house in suburban Cricklewood (complete with a bit of garden and furnished to cosy, middle-class perfection by Derek McLane). They're so assimilated that they ignore the Sabbath and voice doubts about Israeli policies, even though Rachel grew up in a kibbutz. They seem to prefer reading the newspaper to reading the books or listening to the music that fill the built-in bookshelves. They also talk a lot but it's the sort of talk that makes you wonder if their there's any real communication and just how Jewish these people really are.

The issue of their Jewishness assumes new significance when their son, 28-year-old Josh (Jordan Gelber), shows signs of committing to strictly orthodox observance. Is this delayed teen angst? Mental illness (he completed a math degree with high marks but has never held a job)? Sincere, deep-felt conviction, or something else? Whatever. . . Mum and Dad are aghast, disappointed and frightened. Danny likens having a son wearing a skull-cap and laying Tefillin (boxes containing prayers attached to leather straps for morning prayers) to "having a Muslim in the house" and defiantly heads for the kitchen to have a bacon and egg breakfast. But Rachel and Dave aren't the only ones to question Josh's sudden religious leanings. There's crusty, cynical Grandpa Dave (Merwin Goldsmith) and sister Tammy (Natasha Lyonne, film actress making a welcome stage debut), a world-traveling interpreter who still hasn't abandoned idealism.

The religious situation and the unwillingness to get a job aren't Josh's only problems. He is a compulsive nosher and looks it. He is a depressed and depressing presence lurking around the edges of family conversations but unwilling to engage in any kind of dialogue. However, after a hilarious scene in which Josh's putting on the tefillin could easily be mistaken for his shooting up (the implication being that his parents might not find this more upsetting than seeing him flirt with orthodoxy), the second act pushes the religious "problem" aside to make way for two new characters: Tzachi (Yuval Boim), Tammy's pragmatic Israeli boyfriend, and Michelle (Cindy Katz), Rachel's self-absorbed younger sister who deserted the family many years earlier.

As Tzachi seems to represent a link to the family's distant past as kibbutzniks and the dangerous present they have only experienced mostly through the media, the obnoxious Michelle seems to be a challenge to the family's sense of loving solidarity. At any rate, once all these characters are on scene, all the mundane detail and talk errupts into a violent and quite funny display of collective hysteria. The tempest in this familial teapot is diffused by Tzachi, the outsider, with an ending that, like the beginning, relies on Leigh-like understated ordinariness to provide a conclusion of sorts for Josh's engagement with faith.

The subtety of that ending redeems the lack of emotional engagement and the fact that some of the too slow, drawn out mundanity of the first act scenes don't really catch blazing comic fire until the arrival of Grandpa Dave. While his insistence that his emphysema has nothing to do with his constant smoking and choking is the stuff of cliche, it works for this grumpy old left winger and gives Merwin Goldsmith several terrific comic turns.

The character of Michelle who disrupts more than she adds to the play is saved by Cindy Katz. She is so funny and stylishly (courtesy of Mimi O'Donnell) neurotic that you almost don't mind that the second act's shift in direction undermines the full comic potential of the basic situation. Note that "almost" though. Ultimately, it's disappointing that this play drifts from provocative serio-comedy to semi-farcical entertainment that tiptoes around the mystery of the real meaning of Josh's search for faith.

Playwright: Mike Leigh
Directed by Scott Elliott
The New Group at Acorn Theater, 410 W 42nd Street 212-279-4200
Cast: Yuval Boim (Tzachi), David Cale (Jonathan), Laura Esterman (Rachel), Jordan Gelber (Josh), Merwin Goldsmith (Dave), Cindy Katz (Michelle), Natasha Lyonne (Tammy) and Richard Masur (Danny).
Sets: Derek McLane
Lighting: Jason Lyons
Costumes: Mimi O'Donnell
Sound: Ken Travis
Music: The Klezmatics
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.
From 1/15/08; opening 2/07/08; closing 3/08/08. Mon, Wed to Sat at 8pm; Tue at 7pm; Sat at 2pm
Tickets, $56.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 2nd press performance

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