“I study life,” says Josh, the sullen focal point of Mike Leigh’s first play in a dozen years. And so does a writer-director whose film profile has risen ever further since he last worked in the theater. Is “Two Thousand Years” worth a two-year build-up that reached fever pitch this summer when the then-untitled show was reported to have sold out its entire run? The answer depends on one’s response to Leigh’s account of the barbs and bonds of a north London Jewish family, a narrative that hasn’t made that alchemical leap toward art.
To be fair, expectations ran ludicrously high, anticipation compounded by the inevitable secrecy accompanying a project that, as usual for Leigh, began with a cast but no script. The finished result, paradoxically, has an unfinished feel that not even 18 weeks of rehearsal have smoothed out. If “Two Thousand Years” has a future to match the level of interest surrounding it, one hopes Leigh & Co. will continue to shape and refine a piece some distance from achieving the Chekhovian ideal for which it aims.
Chekhov above all dramatists had a supreme gift for catching life on the lam, and Leigh’s opening scene gives every evidence he will follow suit. While Guardian newspaper editorials are anatomizing Yasser Arafat’s “emasculation” of the Israelis, the long-married Rachel (Caroline Gruber) and Danny (Allan Corduner), both assimilated Jews, are getting on with their secular routine at a bleached-wood Cricklewood home that betrays not a hint of ethnic identity. (The overflow of videos in Alison Chitty’s appealing set could apply to any living room anywhere.)
But as tensions in the Middle East escalate, so do they in northwest London. In a short subsequent scene that catches the audience off guard, the unsmiling Josh (Ben Caplan) is glimpsed preparing his arms for what one assumes to be a heroin injection, only to reveal that he is, in fact, laying the tefillin: At 28, the layabout son, a university graduate without a job, has discovered religion.
The result is as if a suicide bomber had parachuted into the living room, though Josh’s lumpen way is to skulk gloweringly in corners. He’s at odds with talkative sister Tammy (Alexis Zegerman), a well-traveled interpreter who has returned home sporting a new Israeli boyfriend, Tzachi (Nitzan Sharron). What ruckus Josh doesn’t stir is left to the eleventh-hour arrival of his wild woman of an aunt, Michelle (Samantha Spiro). Rachel’s manic younger sister blasts her way into a second act from which she exits as suddenly as she enters it.
Danny’s penchant for a good joke leavens an atmosphere not far short of a war zone (an explicitly made comparison), leaving only a brief coda to point a hopeful way forward. The peace process, it seems, is possible after all.
Leigh’s unique organic process — whereby the actors fashion the work through elaborate improvisation, at no point knowing more about the developing scenario than their characters would in life — has not fully borne fruit. One wonders, for instance, about the short shrift given the wonderful Adam Godley, who appears briefly at the play’s beginning and end bearing vegetables from a garden allotment that is organic (natch). Though his character, Jonathan, was 20 years earlier the boyfriend of the all-but-monstrous Michelle, his presence in the story seems oddly incomplete.
No less disconcerting are the rhythms of a play that only occasionally delivers the ebb and flow of spontaneous, overheard speech. An unexpectedly large amount of the stop/start first act is spent staring at scene changes, when a movie would accomplish a similar passing of time with a split-second cut. History’s onward march, not to mention Josh’s entrenched sourness, is scattered across multiple references to the changing headlines of the moment.
But for all the lip service paid to such diverse topics as the growth of British nationalism, Hurricane Katrina and even the recent film “Crash,” one is aware of a story busily annotating the news almost by rote. If the implication is that people really bother to delve beyond the boldface, that doesn’t tally with the lapsed ideals and vague hopelessness that link, and presumably help define, Britain’s Anglo-Jewish middle class. Born on a kibbutz, Rachel laments Israel’s modern-day shift away from “a just and caring society,” and Corduner’s Danny achieves just one moving moment, his face crumpling as he and Rachel remark in unison, “We’re all scared.”
Personalizing these concerns directly is the play’s most recognizable figure, Rachel and Michelle’s 78-year-old father, Dave (John Burgess), who apparently never met a topic on which he couldn’t hold forth. (He’s especially funny on the vagaries of north London traffic.) Choking with emphysema, he peppers his Yiddishisms with an awareness of the grave that could have come straight from Beckett. No matter what hand life deals, Dave snarls, “You still end up in a bloody box.”
The forward-looking conclusion, then, may come as a surprise, though it’s of a piece with an artist who could call a film by the completely unironic title “Life Is Sweet.” “Two Thousand Years” is at its sweetest, and best, particularly in the ready give-and-take between Rachel and Danny, the actors’ ease honoring the play’s lengthy gestation. (Spiro’s errant sis, by contrast, seems like the sort of smart-ass capitalist swine who remains a wearisome type, not a fully conceived creation.)
Theatergoers of every stripe will be drawn to a play marking the first time in his distinguished career that Leigh, himself Jewish, has, as it were, “found” religion. (Michael Coveney’s 1996 biography recounts Leigh saying, “I remain in constant struggle with my roots.”) But for all the ethnic flavoring, “Two Thousand Years” has yet to connect emotionally in the time-honored Leigh manner. “Get out while you can,” Danny advises his own family, even as we wait for the play around him to invite us in.