Jordan Gelber and Laura Esterman
in Two Thousand Years
(© Carol Rosegg)
Jordan Gelber and Laura Esterman
in Two Thousand Years
(© Carol Rosegg)
If you're longing to assess the strengths and weaknesses of improvised playwriting, there isn't a better illustration to hand than Mike Leigh's problematic Two Thousand Years, which The New Group is presenting with a cast that wasn't in on the improvisation. Under Scott Elliott's diligent guidance, this game octet rehearsed the finished script in the traditional way and is therefore caught in the middle of the enterprise.

Throughout the very talky, not to say argumentative, piece a middle-class Jewish family in the Cricklewood section of North London encounters a series of ultimately minor crises. The busy-busy action takes place as the months between August 2004 and September 2005 follow one another -- months that synchronize with the early-Iraqi-War-Hurricane Katrina period when Leigh's gang of improvising thespians were on their feet crafting the play.

Politically aware but not especially activist married couple Rachel (Laura Esterman), a careful homemaker, and Danny (Richard Masur), a dentist, are flabbergasted when in their secular household (a comfy spot with garden that Derek McLane has nicely designed), their 28-year-old, unemployed son Josh (Jordan Gelber) is taken with a bout of orthodox Judaism. As Jews with a bit of history in Israel communes, they don't know what to make of their son wearing a skull cap and ritualistically praying, even though he tries on the accompanying phylacteries and finds them not to his liking.

Even more offended is Rachel's 78-year-old father Dave (Merwin Goldsmith), who occasionally drops by to taunt the young man. Troubled by a feeble heart, Dave isn't helped when his (unseen) wife dies and estranged daughter Michelle (Cindy Katz) turns up in a mourning frenzy that also disrupts the rest of the clan. The only mitigating factors in the fracas are Danny and Rachel's intelligent and grounded daughter Tammy (Natasha Lyonne), who's brought along new and genial Israeli boyfriend Tzachi (Yuval Boim), and benevolent neighbor Jonathan (David Cale), whose wife is having trouble conceiving.

A handful of heated political discussions and confrontations are the sum and eventually inconsequential substance of Two Thousand Years. They occur as a series of high-decibel exchanges that Leigh and his original cast apparently mistook for drama. From line to line and scene to scene (there are eight of them), the behavior of the rageaholics depicted is certainly persuasive, but cumulatively no dramatic tension tightens. Indeed, the two-act piece ends in much the same household calm as it began.

When it does, the point made by the piece is less about a look at contemporary bourgeois English Jewry and what it's come to in the last 2000 years than it is about contemporary dramaturgy. An actual playwright is still a good idea, someone with a developed sense of structure. To wit, it's likely that a well-schooled dramatist would deal with the play's elephant in the room; indeed, newly pious Josh is almost entirely scanted by the final fade-out. Yet, here's a man who has never worked in the seven years since he left university with an impressive degree, as his parents remind him. Indulged by Mom and Dad, he's loafed around the house in which he was raised, reading, and taking walks. Clearly, he's profoundly, clinically depressed, and the effect of that depression on him and his not-all-that-dysfunctional family is worth far more exploration than the slice-of-life view it received during Leigh's preparation.

Elliott hasn't Leigh's luxury of readjusting the completed text until satisfied, but he's played the hand he was dealt with finesse. Putting aside the trouble maintaining the Cricklewood accents that dialect coach Stephen Gabis hasn't surmounted with most of the cast, the actors do a polished job between and among each other. The reacting is especially impressive. There's a particularly fine moment when Danny is furious at something Josh has done, and Masur simply gives Gelber a stinging look as he passes him. At another moment, Rachel has been wounded by a barbed comment Michelle hurls, and Esterman responds with a quietly sarcastic speech and accompanying expressions that imply a lifetime of containing herself. Gelber's Josh is moodily terrific as far as he's allowed to go.

By the way, the eight scenes are punctuated with perky original music by The Klezmatics that perhaps unintentionally underscores the sitcom-like texture of a work that could have been considerably more.