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Two Thousand Years

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jordan Gelber and Laura Esterman
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If hope isn't to be found in the headlines, in religion, or within, where exactly must one look to uncover the spiritual energy needed to survive an existence forever in crisis? The answer is not Mike Leigh's play, Two Thousand Years.

Oh, The New Group is giving Leigh's treatise on the dangers and necessities of relying on oneself and others a typically excellent production, with direction by Scott Elliott and a British-middle-class set by Derek McLane of unassumingly elegant simplicity. One would expect nothing less from this ceaselessly enterprising troupe, which has been responsible for many of the most distinctive Off-Broadway productions of the last few years, including one of Leigh's earlier works, Abigail's Party (in 2005).

Whereas that play settled for the deceptively dense subject of class-consciousness in 1970s London, this one is involved with the concerns of non-practicing English Jews and some six billion supernumeraries watching the tragedy of the 2000s unfold from the wings. But if there's no question that Two Thousand Years climbs considerably higher than Abigail's Party, that only leaves it farther to tumble, and not even Elliott's finely tuned staging and adroit company can stop the freefall.

The play's failure to engage intellectually and emotionally may be partially traced to Leigh's method of constructing it: Per his usual, he began not with a script but with only actors in rehearsal, establishing and expanding events based on his cast's unique strengths and the state of the world just outside the door. In the summer of 2005, that meant the rippling effects of terrorism at home and abroad and crises such as Hurricane Katrina, along with a general uncertainty about whether civilization would survive another 10 years.

But while this provides background for a story about an English family that uses its Jewish heritage as a punch line rather than as a blueprint for living, it lacks the specificity that might give the surrounding play a solid foundation. It's built around patriarch Danny (Richard Masur) and his Rachel (Laura Esterman), savvy professionals who live so fully above the folds of their newspapers they can barely pause to notice their own family dissolving around them, which leads to more wry ideas about modern life than it does relatable drama.

Natasha Lyonne and Richard Masur
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It takes Danny and Rachel's 29-year-old son Josh (Jordan Gelber) embracing Orthodox Judaism to rouse them from their torpor and into anger. Rachel's emphysemic father Dave (Merwin Goldsmith) is likewise outraged: How could his grandson, once a brilliant mathematician, have become so irrational? Josh's needling sister Tammy (Natasha Lyonne) uses it as another of many excuses to mock him, while herself taking up with a new Israeli boyfriend named Tzachi (Yuval Boim) who's much closer to frontlines than the family is.

All these pieces, however, are never assembled into a recognizable picture until well into the second act, when the appearance of Laura's sister Michelle (Cindy Katz) yanks the family's antics into focus. In this lengthy but precisely controlled explosion of hilarity, the virulently self-absorbed Michelle makes everyone else look like Good Samaritans, and forces them to realize the humanity they've been sacrificing at the altars of fear and indifference.

The scene, however, is not adequate compensation for what's come before, and doesn't cap this otherwise flimsy treatment of issues that should be as relevant to Americans today as to Britons of two and a half years ago. Tzachi claims at one point that the pointedly political Tammy always speaks in the abstract, unable to pinpoint her opinions on the real people they might affect; Two Thousand Years is much the same, staking its claim to topicality by raising important questions but feeling no responsibility to address any of them directly. It becomes instead a faded checklist of ways to cope with the uncopable, occasionally interesting as an artifact but never especially enlightening.

This doesn't allow the actors much room to maneuver, which makes it all the more remarkable they're as fine as they are. Masur and Esterman bring an unwavering sense of place and purpose to Rachel and Danny, naturally finding in them both the contended disaffectedness and unbridled rage that Josh and Michelle elicit. Gelber makes Josh a cannily understated nervous wreck obviously in need of all the solace he can find, while Goldsmith is the model of cantankerousness as his irascible grandfather. Lyonne, Boim, and David Cale, in a shrug-off role as a well-meaning neighbor, find attractive depth in the one-dimensional people they're playing.

Katz, though, brings such fire to Michelle it seems as though she's wandered in from a different plane of existence, where passion rather than placid patience is the order of the day. Her Michelle displays not a hint of personal awareness or a trace of irony as she emphatically attacks her family with all the deadliest weapons in her arsenal (guilt, despair, and misdirected anger chief among them). She believes so completely in the lies she's told herself, she's just as deadly as the bomb in the London Underground that catapults Rachel and Danny into the thick of the uneasiness from which they must struggle to escape.

Such delusion, Leigh warns us, is where true terror lies. It's yet another example of Dave's maxim that "personal choice without explanation is dangerous." That's the strongest message one may derive from Two Thousand Years, and while it's not quite nothing, it's precious little for a play with such lofty aims to make you wait two millennia - or even two hours - to hear.

Two Thousand Years
Through March 8
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online: TicketCentral

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