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IT’S A JEWISH THING

 

picture - Two Thousand YearsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published February 14, 2008

 

Two Thousand Years

now playing Off Broadway through March 8

at the Clurman on Theater Row

 

Most happy secular Jewish families are unhappy; every unhappy secular Jewish family is unhappy in its own way. This, one supposes, is the guiding idea that is at the heart of Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years. The problem, however, it that it is sometimes hard to tell, when observing such happy/unhappy secular Jewish families, which of the family members you recognize from real life and which you recognize from other plays about  secular Jewish families. The family in Leigh’s new play lives in Cricklewood, North London, but they could just as easily live in Brooklyn or in any number of plays from Clifford Odets to Neil Simon. There is truth here, but there are also a hell of a lot of clichés. That, of course, is the play itself I’m talking about.

 

As dramatic literature, one can’t be sure if the play reads well; it seems to lack any sort of intellectual strength or dramatic development. On the other hand, as an evening in the theater, it is, in a very immediate way, sublime. How can that be, you may ask; and the answer lies more in Leigh’s methods than in his sense of dramaturgy. Leigh builds his plays and films (and his films sustain his particular style with far more subtlety and brilliance than even the best of his plays) on an intensive period of improvisation with his actors. And the reason his American ally and champion Scott Elliott of The New Group is such a successful interpreter of Leigh’s work is that he shares with Leigh a genuine love and respect for actors.

 

The secret here then is that while this play flirts with serious themes which affect almost every Jewish family (the title refers to the length of time the Jewish Diaspora has lasted,  and which is still going strong) – none of it fully fleshed out, I might add – its real reason for existence is as a study of the behavior of its characters and, to push it to its logical extreme, the behavior of its actors. And Elliott couldn’t have assembled a better group of actors to make Leigh’s play come vibrantly to life, despite the fact that there is no play there.

 

So we don’t care as much as we should about the issues that get bandied around – that Jewishness is less a religion than a state of being, that Zionism has crossed over from a Socialist ideal to a right-wing nightmare, that this is a particularly difficult moment in  time and space for all Jews – as we do in the family involved. It is how they behave that engages us and which ultimately tells us where their real problems lie. Take Laura Esterman’s portrayal of the mother. That smile on her face seems fixed, her way of getting though life; and watch very carefully when that smile disappears –when she is confronted by a long-absent sister – and you’ll know exactly what is hiding behind that smile: the years of unspoken dissatisfaction. Watch the way she reads a newspaper; it takes as long as it takes to actually read a newspaper. But almost everything in this production is pushed to a semblance of real time, as if the slow progression of time often defines whom people are. It is more realism than naturalism and it is often as disturbing and uncomfortable as it can be familiar and, all too often, hilariously funny. Ms. Esterman gets wonderful support from Richard Masur as her well-meaning but quickly enraged husband, Merwin Goldsmith as her cantankerous and myopic father, Natasha Lyonne as her free-wheeling and socially conscious daughter, Jordan Gelber as her angry and intellectually tormented son in search of orthodoxy as a way out of his family’s stifling self-containment, and, most especially, Cindy Katz, as her selfish alcoholic sister whose appearance in the second act provides the play with its one scene of dramatic cohesion. These are real people because these actors make them so palpable, so human, so really and truly unhappy, in their every gesture, in their every emotional revelation, rather than because their characters have been written with any rigor or complexity.

 

There is nothing that embodies this mise-en-scene as effectively or as beautifully as David Cale playing the neighbor. When he shows up in the first scene, it is almost as if he walked into the play by accident; and when he seems to realize that fact, he leaves as unceremoniously and as abruptly as he arrives. We almost forget about him until he shows up again and, in a long, steady gaze between him and Ms. Katz, we learn, without one spoken word, everything we need to know about their past relationship and about how the years have affected both their lives, and why Mr. Cale’s character was written into the play in the first place.

 

Yuval Boim, delightfully casual as Ms. Lyonne’s Israeli suitor with a refreshingly candid view of the Israeli-Palestinian ongoing conflict, completes the excellent cast. Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes have the virtue of looking like real clothes worn by real people. And the best thing about Derek McLane’s set design is his back-to-back sofas. One is designed to be part of the communal atmosphere. The other is plainly a world unto its own, for play and for hiding out. That, too, defines the play’s themes better than anything in the writing.

 

In brief, something is going on here, but it has everything to do with the approach to the material, rather than with the material itself.  Fortunately, the approach works.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 
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