Improv-happy filmmaker Mike Leigh's new play, "Two Thousand Years," is currently in previews at The New Group @ Theatre Row in New York. Originally staged on London West End, it's Leigh's first new play in twelve years, and was shaped according to his traditionally collaborative method, in which actors work together to flesh out their characters and the relationships that drive narrative.
The results are riveting, if not always seamless. At the center of the alternately sad and raucous family portrait is Josh: only son, pudgy math geek with zero direction, and (wait for it) budding Orthodox Jew. Seemingly overnight, Josh has become religious, sending his (educated, secular) parents, sister, and grandfather reeling. It's a family like so many other contemporary Jewish families: they know they're Jews, they feel inexplicably Jewish, but they don't observe Judaism in any tangible or practical way. They can't fully articulate why, and perhaps they know it's illogical, but religion makes them uncomfortable. Israel has resonance, Kibbutz ideology has resonance, the Holocaust still carries that dutiful, if beleaguered, capital "H", but beyond those vagaries lies… what, exactly? Leigh himself recently told Time Out New York he's a "Jew who doesn't bother to be a Jew very much."
This ambivalent sort-of-identity (or lack thereof?) is, according to the BBC, "the heart and soul of the play, and Leigh uses it to also address contemporary issues that impinge on the family such as the Israeli-Palestine question, the failure of the kibbutz ideal, the war on Iraq, and even the recent New Orleans hurricane."
All well and good, but what makes the play really worth seeing (and it's oh-so-worth seeing) is the inherent hilarity of the inter-familial relationships portrayed. They're not the cliché, vaguely-Jewy brand of hilarity, however. Merwin Goldsmith's Grandpa is alone worth the price of admission. And! Wrecked actress Natasha Lyonne, best known these days for her disturbing, severely unkempt public appearances in lower Manhattan, makes her New York stage debut as Tammy, Josh's freewheeling but well-adjusted younger sister.