No Yarmulke, Please, We’re Assimilated
...“Two Thousand Years,” a comedy by Mike Leigh in which a middle-class Jewish clan in London kvetches about the future of Israel and the sore spots in the family past. The unexpected arrival of a long-estranged sister sets off a conflagration that escalates vertiginously from surly sniping to bitter recriminations, and ends in shouted avowals of hate and desperate gulps from a bottle of Scotch.
...“Two Thousand Years,” which opened on Thursday night at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row, rises to a pleasing comic pitch in the fractious last act. And it is enlivened, as all Mr. Elliott’s stagings of Mr. Leigh’s work have been, by several finely honed performances, including a smart, tart New York stage debut from Natasha Lyonne, the young actress best known for her roles in the movies “Slums of Beverly Hills” and “American Pie” (And just possibly for a tabloid headline or two.)
In Mr. Leigh’s best plays he turns a merry but sardonic eye to the doings of the abrasively vulgar. Here he writes about a generally well-behaved family firmly ensconced in the bourgeoisie, and some of the scenes feel straitjacketed, as if he found respectability dull.
He is a perceptive observer of social behavior, but in “Two Thousand Years” there is more discussion than behavior. Cordial, almost formal talks about current affairs consume much time, as the family debates British politics and the latest developments in the Middle East with a detached coolness that shifts suddenly into breast beating when matters of a more personal nature are engaged. (The play is set in 2004 and 2005, so the current affairs in question are something less than current.)
The discourse about Arafat and Rabin and Tony Blair is interrupted one day when Danny (Richard Masur) and Rachel (Laura Esterman) discover that their adult son, Josh (Jordan Gelber), has taken to wearing a yarmulke [oh my gosh!]. (The wonderful Ms. Esterman has a funny moment as she rises tentatively on tiptoe, anxious to confirm what her startled eyes have taken in.)
Although their conversation is liberally sprinkled with Yiddish, Danny and Rachel and her father, Dave (an amusingly cranky Merwin Goldsmith), are firmly, even fanatically secular Jews. Children are always sent on the traditional teenage adventure on a kibbutz, but religion plays no part in their daily lives, and their attitude toward the politics and policies of Israel is mostly one of embarrassed consternation.
Still, Danny’s enraged reaction seems a little peculiar, as he dismisses Josh’s conversion as lunacy and stomps off to the kitchen vengefully to fry up some bacon and eggs. (Here and elsewhere, Mr. Masur’s performance lurches too violently from genial to shrill.)
Rachel is confused but more understanding, reacting as if Josh had disclosed, say, his homosexuality. “We still love you, Josh,” she assures him gently. Josh’s sister, Tammy (Ms. Lyonne), who works as a translator of Spanish and is a passionate fighter for liberal causes, is merely amused. “I haven’t seen you wearing one of those since your bar mitzvah,” she observes coolly, a slicing smile signaling the giggles she is swallowing back.
The distance that has arisen between secular liberal Jews and the faith of their fathers is an intriguing subject, but Mr. Leigh engages it only obliquely. Josh is never allowed to articulate any rationale for his sudden adherence to committed orthodox belief. A university graduate with a math degree and no career, he seems to have discovered his religious calling casually, digging it out from between cushions on the couch one day, along with the lost remote control. Nor is Rachel and Danny’s discomfort with Josh’s conversion meaningfully explored — Josh’s faith is treated more or less as a running gag.
The first half of “Two Thousand Years” is composed of many short scenes, some wordless. As blackout follows hard upon blackout, you may almost feel as if you’re listening to perky transitional music and staring at a dark stage more often than you are watching a play. Perhaps Mr. Leigh set out to write a screenplay and changed his mind midway through the process; the loose, languid structure that works so well in his movies can feel sluggish onstage.
But with the arrival of Michelle (Cindy Katz), Rachel’s sister, in the second act, “Two Thousand Years” clicks into a slick, comic groove. Mr. Leigh has a pronounced fondness for larger-than-life women, and Ms. Katz tears into her role as the hugely self-pitying and self-absorbed Michelle with a gusto that energizes the whole play.
Michelle has not spoken to anyone in the family for a decade, but she has scarcely said hello before she is agonizingly claiming her right to be chief mourner for a family loss. Michelle cannot accept a cup of coffee that has not come from a “cafetière,” and strews casual insults around the living room with abandon.
Nevertheless, she insists: “I’m a people person. I’m easygoing. I’m not demanding. Why are you doing this to me?” Ms. Katz brilliantly conveys the combination of entitlement and victimhood that makes Michelle such a wonderfully, hilariously odious character.
Within a few minutes the entitled victim has managed to alienate everyone anew, and soon the family is engaged in a tempest of outraged invective that rattles the windows. At last Tammy’s handsome new Israeli boyfriend (the charming Yuval Boim), who has been watching the festivities with a bewildered smile, throws himself into the fracas.
Stepping among the combatants, he stuns the family into a sudden silence. “Enough,” he says gently. “It’s not funny anymore.” Which is far from true, and happens to be one of the funniest lines in the play.
TWO THOUSAND YEARS
By Mike Leigh; directed by Scott Elliott; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Mimi O’Donnell; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Ken Travis; original music by the Klezmatics; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production supervisor, Peter R. Feuchtwanger/PRF Productions; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson; assistant director, Marie Masters. Presented by the New Group, Mr. Elliott, artistic director; Geoff Rich, executive director. At the Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, Clinton; (212) 279-4200. Through March 8. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: 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).