Two Thousand Years
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 2, 2008
I wanted to see Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years because I was genuinely intrigued by its advertised premise [from the press release]: "an assimilated Jewish family whose routine in quiet suburban London is upset when its layabout son begins following a devout lifestyle." Trouble is, though the play starts out to explore this topic, by the second act it's mostly evaporated from even peripheral focus; the climactic scene is a confrontation between the family and a prodigal sister who returns on cue after at least a decade away (she sets off an explosion in the play in the same way that a loaded gun mentioned in Act One of a melodrama would). Though there's a certain amount of reasoned argument about secularism versus observance and faith—not to mention endless bickering throughout—the play mostly feels, in the final analysis, like an opportunity for Leigh to complain about the American and Israeli governments and how their proclivities and policies are destabilizing the world.
Even when it stays on point, though, Leigh's plotting here feels deliberately perverse. We're introduced, in a series of very short scenes, to the family: the father, Danny, a dentist; the mother, Rachel; and the grown son, Josh. Josh has no job and apparently no interest in getting one; he mopes around the house ostentatiously and rudely. No information is provided to explain why he's in such a funk or why his parents allow this (by their own account) very intelligent and well-educated adult to mooch off them.
And then out of the blue, Josh sneaks into the house one day, checks to be sure that nobody is around, turns off the lights, closes the curtains—he's so darned furtive that it feels like he's about to put a child pornography video into the VCR or something. But of course—and does Leigh mean this as the joke it feels like?—he's about to put on the vestments of his new-found faith (a yarmulke and a prayer shawl) and he's about to open a holy book and pray.
When Danny and Rachel catch him wearing what they call (in Hebrew) a kippah, they are utterly mortified. As if, to continue my metaphor, they'd caught Josh having sex with a 12-year-old. I kept wondering why: what has drawn Josh to religion? why religion and not something else? and what's so wrong with it? Perhaps it is because he found he had little to say about the issue that Leigh decides to mostly ignore it once he's raised it.
Instead, we meet Josh's very well-put-together sister Tammy, his crotchety but articulate grandfather Dave, and—in Act Two—Tammy's Israeli boyfriend Tzachi and the aforementioned and much anticipated aunt Michelle, Rachel's sister who hasn't spoken to anyone in the family in years. Sometimes these people have lucid and interesting discussions about world affairs when they get together, but mostly they fight fight fight, especially once Michelle arrives on the scene. It's impressionistic and vignette-ish, crowded with incident but not arriving at any particular point as far as I could tell. Very unsatisfying.
There are nevertheless some performances to admire, notably Merwin Goldsmith's entirely convincing portrayal of Dave, who emerges as the character who feels most complete here. Laura Esterman (Rachel), Yuval Boim (Tzachi), and David Cale (as the family's gentle neighbor Jonathan) all succeed in making their characters interesting and compelling. Richard Masur can't help but make Danny likable and intelligent, but he seems to be having difficulties with his English accent. Scott Elliott's direction is both unobtrusive and relaxed, which may not be what the play needs. Derek McLane's set includes a living room arrangement I've never seen in real life anywhere, with two sofas placed back-to-back in the center of the room, so that people on the front sofa can interact with the rest of the people in the room, while someone on the back sofa can ignore everyone else and watch television (at the risk of hurting their eyes, for it's really close by): odd, I thought, particularly since that rear sofa is almost never used during the play.
The fact that I wondered about why there's a second sofa in the room, though, is merely a sign of the play's larger problem, which is that it meanders so far off what seems to be its course. The return of a disaffected younger generation to traditional religion—the drama that was promised—feels pertinent and worthy of exploration. Yet another family shouting match—what Leigh has ultimately created here—seems to be neither.