Mike Leigh is best known for ensemble films such as Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies, but he's no slouch as a writer and director of plays. A couple of seasons back the New Group staged a hilarious revival of his 1977 comedy Abigail's Party. Two Thousand Years, which premiered in 2005 at London's National Theatre, isn't as consistently funny as that priceless seventies period piece. But like most of Leigh's work, it's a truthful and absorbing look at a British family.
In this case, his characters are middle-class, Jewish residents of North London. Assimilated and secular, the happily married Rachel (Laura Esterman ) and Danny (Richard Masur ) have mixed feelings about Israel even though they lived on a kibbutz years ago. At times they sound almost pro-Palestinian. It thus comes as a shock to them when they're son Josh (Jordan Gelber) a 28-year-old with a university math degree who has never held a job and lives at home, becomes devout. Instead of approving of his newfound orthodoxy, his parents are perplexed. It's like having a Muslim in the household, Danny says. Rachel wonders if he has joined a sect.
Josh's sister, Tammy (Natasha Lyonne), a freelance translator, is even more disparaging. And their rather cynical grandfather (Merwin Goldsmith) openly laughs at Josh. Joining in on the religious debate is family friend Jonathan (David Cale ), who once dated Rachel's estranged sister, Michelle (Cindy Katz). There's a bit too much sitting around and chatting in the first act, but things heat up in the second act when Michelle unexpectedly shows up after an 11-year absence. Since this is a typically honest, unsentimental play by Leigh, don't expect her to get a warm-and-fuzzy reception from her resentful family. Caught in the middle of the battle that erupts is Tammy's new Israeli boyfriend Tzachi (Yuval Boim).
Director Scott Elliott-who has directed four other Leigh plays at the New Group, including Abigail's Party and Ecstasy-does a fine job orchestrating the familial ups and downs. He locates the humor as well as the drama in Two Thousand Years, which contains plenty of both. (Like all of Leigh's films and plays, it began without a script and was developed through improvisations with the original cast.) The American actors assembled by Elliott are excellent, particularly Esterman and Katz as the warring sisters. Some of the accents are at times shaky, however, despite the work of dialect coach Stephen Gabis.
Nonetheless, it's refreshing to see a play that deftly mixes religion, politics, and domestic infighting. Leigh has long been a master of the family comedy-drama. Here he successfully integrates religious and political discussion into the plot, and that's no small feat.