Monday, February 11, 2008

On the Surface

Two Thousand Years
Written by Mike Leigh
Directed by Scott Elliott
Starring Yuval Boim, David Cale, Laura Esterman, Jordan Gelber, Merwin Goldsmith, Cindy Katz, Natasha Lyonne and Richard Masur

The New Group at the Acorn Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
January 15-March 8, 2008

Mike Leigh, best known as the director of such Oscar-nominated films as Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, and the shattering Vera Drake, is also a playwright of note. His latest, Two Thousand Years, is--according to Leigh himself--the “Jewish play” he never felt he could write earlier, and it follows the same direction as much of his other work. It’s an intimate study of a British family in crisis. But this time, in addition to the usual social, political, and economic implications, faith and religion have been added into the mix.

Rachel and Danny, an upper-middle-class couple living in London, have raised their son Josh and daughter Tammy as good liberals. Tammy has unsurprisingly become a social worker who travels the globe for worthy causes, but Josh has “discovered” Orthodox Judaism, so he begins wearing a yarmulke and praying in Hebrew.

Ostensibly about a modern family’s confrontation with religion at a highly volatile point in history, Two Thousand Years uses that crisis of faith as a springboard for an exploration of our society. It’s too bad, then, that Leigh only sketchily studies his weighty subjects. The family discusses politics with intelligence and insight but, although Leigh’s dialogue is fast-moving and sparkling, the talk never reaches below the surface.

In this play set in 2004-05, there are conversations about terrorism in England and Spain, Bush’s bumbling war in Iraq, Blair’s re-election, and ordinary citizens' disillusionment with interchangeable political parties. It’s interesting that the religious angle–overweight, lazy Josh has obviously found a replacement for the closeness he never felt among his family–is brought up and then dropped, aside from anxious arguments among the family. These arguments, which also involve cranky old grandfather Dave, are quite hilarious but, again, superficial.

The cast is superb. Best of all are Laura Esterman as Rachel, Natasha Lyonne as Tammy, and Merwin Goldsmith as Dave. The small role of black-sheep daughter Michelle is played with immense comedic and tragic skill by Cindy Katz; the character comes onto the scene after intermission to wreak havoc and tear open old scabs, turning what was a mildly engaging drama into a full-blown psychocomedy.

With director Scott Elliott at the helm, this is a first-rate evening of theater in which excellent acting reinforces thought-provoking subject matter that, unfortunately, Leigh doesn’t confront more deeply.
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