In Mike Leigh’s often hilarious and invigorating new play, you won’t find the typical dysfunctional family that usually serves as the core of so many contemporary plays. The personal issues, political debates, and familial confrontations at stake within a stimulatingly progressive British-Jewish family leave little space or time for dysfunctional distractions. The New Group has previously produced the lauded playwright’s seamier visions of lower class society, "Abigail’s Party," "Ecstasy," "Goose Pimples," and "Smelling a Rat." It is now presenting the play that Leigh wrote for the National Theater in London in 2005. Notwithstanding his excellent films, "Topsy-Turvy," "Secret and Lies," and "Vera Drake," this play, in my estimation, is his best yet. It is a gem in which the essence of a middle class family’s secular liberal views is put to the test.
A loveable contentiousness can be observed flowing through many deliberately unremarkable situations, most of which, however, provide plenty of room for rebellion, dissent, discontent, and the inevitable arguments that typically define home life. The play is set in Cricklewood, North London, with all the ensuing tumult occurring in a comfortably furnished living room (handsomely designed by Derek McLane) between July, 2004, and September, 2005. Danny (Richard Masur) and Rachel (Laura Esterman) are initially dumbfounded when they discover that their son, Josh (Jordan Gelber), has suddenly and with no apparent forewarning taken up Jewish orthodoxy in a big way. "It’s unbelievable. It’s like having a Muslim in the house," shouts the ideologically progressive Danny.
Although Josh is 29 years old, a college graduate with a degree in math, he still lives at home despite his peculiarly hostile and defensive relationship with his parents. When confronted it is obvious that Josh is sorely in need of anger management. Neither Josh’s father, Danny, a dentist who diligently reads the Guardian, nor Rachel, a distressed but also conciliatory stay-at-home mom, are prepared for Josh’s seemingly out-of-the-blue commitment, as he proceeds to wear a skull cap around the house, study the Talmud, and furtively perform the morning prayers ritual with the tefillen. As affably compatible are Danny and Rachel as they voice a somewhat pessimistic view of the world.
This is contrasted with the idealism expressed by their daughter, Tammy (Natasha Lyonne), an international translator home for a visit. She has in tow her Israeli boyfriend Tzachi, (Yuval Boim), whose pleasantries would appear to be in the direct line of fire mostly perpetrated by her argumentative grandfather, Dave (Merwin Goldsmith), a socialist who deplores the course of modern Zionism among the many other social and political irritants that periodically provoke his emphysema attacks.
Nothing, however, brings the family closer than the death of Dave’s wife (unseen). And nothing gives the family more reason to revive their forever challenging sense of family unity than the unexpected appearance of Rachel’s sister, Michelle (Cindy Katz), who after 11 estranged years and no communication with anyone in the family, returns to grieve. Michelle may be able to flaunt her success in the business world, but she is also seen as a certifiable nut case. Her disingenuous excuses and self-serving histrionics manage to incite the wrath of everyone. But most amusingly, it is in Michelle’s unstable behavior that we get the long anticipated expenditure of traditional Jewish guilt and with it a marvelously off-the-wall performance from Katz.
The play, under Scott Elliott’s beautifully orchestrated direction, begins with a series of short scenes that provide only teasing glimpses of the family. Leigh methodically increases the time of each scene, each one textured with more and more clues about these erudite people and what motivates them. How can we not laugh at Rachel’s disbelieving reaction to the belligerent Josh, Danny’s corny Jewish jokes, Dave’s condemnation of just about everything, and Josh’s irrational disdain for just about everybody.
The dialogue is rich with zesty confrontational humor, even as it is laced with political posturing and contrary perspectives that sound just a little forced. Masur and Esterman are marvelous as the couple who may have lost their faith, but not their sense of what it means to be Jewish. How wonderful it is that Leigh has provided the play with parents who actually adore and support each other. As Josh, Gelber gets little opportunity to be more than disagreeable, but Lyonne, as his sister and Boim as her attentive beau, are quite charming. Listening to Goldsmith bellow endearingly as grandfather, and watching Katz come apart at the seams as the vulnerable Michelle, provides a good deal of ferocious in-each-other’s-face fun. But underneath it all we see a family who finds meaning in their togetherness. Good show. HHH
"Two Thousand Years," through Saturday, March 8, the New Group at the Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street. $56.25. 212-279-4200.