A legit hit in London that spawned a successful U.K. tour seems like a natural candidate for a stint on Broadway, especially when the production is written by an Oscar-nommed filmmaker.
But when Mike Leigh’s latest play, “Two Thousand Years,” makes its American preem this month, the show will play a small house Off Broadway, just as Leigh’s four prior New York outings did.
“Years,” which begins previews Jan. 15 at the 199-seat Acorn Theater, is the latest product of the mutually beneficial relationship between Leigh and Gotham troupe the New Group — a longstanding link that has yielded hits for the New Group and a solid presence for Leigh on the New York theater scene.
“Two Thousand Years” is the fifth Leigh play produced by the New Group and helmed by Scott Elliott, the company’s a.d. Centering on a secular Jewish family in suburban London, the show, which played a popular five-month run at the National beginning in September 2005, is also the first new play from Leigh since “It’s a Great Big Shame!” in 1993.
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The Brit writer-director has cultivated a rep for plays and pics that grow out of unusually long, collaborative rehearsal processes with casts of actors, during which character exploration and improvisation help determine the events of the story.
His CV includes plays such as “Abigail’s Party” (1977), “Ecstasy” (1979) and “Goose-Pimples” (1981), although it’s his film work — “Vera Drake” (2004), “Topsy-Turvy” (1999), “Secrets & Lies” (1996) and “Naked” (1993), among others — that is best known Stateside.
The relationship between the New Group and Leigh stretches back to 1995, when the troupe presented “Ecstasy” as its inaugural production. Elliott had been introduced by a friend to Leigh’s BBC teleplays from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and contacted the writer’s rep about producing and directing his plays in Gotham.
“Ecstasy,” about the blue-collar lives of a group of friends in London, proved a major critical and B.O. success for the fledgling troupe.
“Mike Leigh definitely has a following. It began the New Group’s following,” says Elliott.
Elliott has gone on to direct New Group productions of Leigh’s plays “Goose-Pimples,” “Smelling a Rat” and “Abigail’s Party.” The 2005 staging of “Party,” which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, hit $1.3 million at the box office — a hefty sum for a nonprofit Off Broadway company with a $2.2 million operating budget and an average production cost of about $315,000.
Although New Group has found success on Broadway as the original co-producer (with the Vineyard Theater) of “Avenue Q,” the troupe’s productions of Leigh plays strike a fiscal balance in smaller venues. “He’s definitely an acquired taste,” Elliott says of Leigh and his work.
From the New Group, Leigh gets a regular showcase for his plays in Gotham. “It’s very good news that this director has brought my stage works to a New York audience that otherwise would only know my films,” he says.
Along with the string of Leigh plays that began with “Ecstasy,” the New Group has become notable for attracting respected stars (Wallace Shawn, Cynthia Nixon, Lili Taylor, Kristen Johnston, Chloe Sevigny) to a wide range of both revivals (“Aunt Dan and Lemon”) and new plays (“This is Our Youth”). A 2004 production of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” went on to a commercial run Off Broadway, and, most recently, Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, “Things We Want,” ended an extended run last month.
As for Leigh, after focusing for a decade on movies, he was brought back to legit when Nicholas Hytner, a.d. of London’s National Theater, asked him to write a play.
The result, created over an 18-week rehearsal period, was “Two Thousand Years,” which follows the upheaval in a secular Jewish family when the son suddenly becomes devoutly faithful. The show, which received favorable reviews, sold out its initial offering of 16,000 tickets even before it began perfs in September 2005, and the production led to a successful U.K. tour in 2006.
The cast of theGotham incarnation, which opens Feb. 7, includes Natasha Lyonne. Leigh, who has seen every New Group production of his work except “Ecstasy,” will visit “Two Thousand Years” late in its rehearsal period to make minor tweaks if necessary.
“I don’t do what I do for Scott and his company anywhere else,” Leigh says. “I like what he does.”
Biz for the Gotham incarnation of “Two Thousand Years” could top sales for “Abigail’s Party.”
“Every time we do one of Mike’s plays, the audience increases,” Elliott says. “They get better and better attended.”