SUBURBAN MESHUGAH (MADNESS)

Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years is a household drama about faith and family with a rhythm better suited to a British television serial than to a play. As a result, The New Group’s limited-run US production ultimately drags more than it pops, despite some sterling performances. "To be a free people in our own land is the hope of two thousand years," proclaims the Israeli anthem, Hatikvah . But for overweight and underemployed Josh (Jordan Gelber), a 28-year old still living in his parents’ secular home in suburban London, to be free to practice a more devout Orthodox faith without family ridicule seems a hopeless endeavor indeed.

Josh’s aging Leftist parents, Rachel and Danny (Laura Esterman and David Kale) are squarely hit in the face by their son’s atypical rebellion, symptoms of which include wearing a capple (Jewish skull-cap) around the house, maintaining a restricted diet, and performing a sort of prayer that involves wrapping his arms with plastic rope, making it look suspiciously -- religion as narcotic? -- like he is preparing to shoot heroin.

“It’s my choice,” says Josh, “If it gives me something, why can’t you just accept it?” And yet, Josh’s newfound religious devotion is somehow less pardonable to his parents than seven post-grad years without gainful employment.

“It’s like having a Muslim in the house,” says his father. For Rachel and Danny’s liberal household (presented as a comfy Pier-One style living room by set designer Derek McLane) is one in which Israeli policies (circa 2005) can be comfortably challenged over The Guardian or tea.

Add to the family brood a chain-smoking, steamrolling, former kibbutznik of a grandfather (the delightful Merwin Goldsmith as Dave); and a globetrotting human rights extrovert daughter (a juicy Natasha Lyonne as Tammy); and the cast for the Jewish family sitcom is complete.

Laura Esterman does a yeoman’s work in her role as the family pillar in this first act, carrying many of the more mundane passages with her deft physicality (down to synchronized head nodding).

But it's only in the second act that Two Thousand Years starts really moving, with a family crisis that forces everybody, including Rachel's long estranged sister Michelle (a plum role for the able Cindy Katz) and Tammy's new Israeli boyfriend Tzachi (Yuval Boim) to come together.

The comic relief offered by the narcissist merchant banker Michelle, whose selfish ways inspire an ire that collectively unites the family, is a welcome backdrop for more Middle Eastern debate as spurred by outsider Tzach (and the presence of Israel that he implies.)

Even if Michelle's character seems something of a foil, the heated political discussion in the second act emerges from a believable family in a specific situation rather than being superimposed onto a slow domestic rhythm as is the case in the first act.

The family dynamics of the play have much potential in other mediums, and kvetching about parking is certainly endearing and familiar enough. But while certain family members are fleshed out enough to identify with (even the curmudgeonly grandfather), the potentially sympathetic Josh (whose brooding does not belie enough stifled rage) is harder to discern, and thus harder to care about.

While many interesting topics are touched upon by this British family from Cricklewood, from the Zionist ideal, West Bank/Gaza Strip, Israeli security, Venezualan referendum, and suicide bombs, to the Americans (they do what they want), the play remains curiously disjointed in its bridge between family, religion and politics.

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