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Leigh Way

February 7, 2008 By:
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The generational divide of "Two Thousand Years," by Mike Leigh, is apparent in a religious tiff between Josh (Jordan Gelber, left) and his mother (Laura Esterman).

He is the "Two Thousand Years" man.

But Mike Leigh -- despite the Yiddishkeit that soars throughout his new drama opening off-Broadway on Feb. 7 -- is no babbling Mel Brooks.

He blazes society, not saddles.

And "Two Thousand Years" enflames and entertains as it examines a muddled middle-class Jewish-geography of a family -- place them outside not so-cheerio England of 2004, where they currently reside, and sans accents and some sneering attitudes, they could plop and flip-flop elsewhere -- whose topsy-turvy take on germane Jewish issues (with occasional left jabs at Israel, President Bush, Iraq and former Prime Minister Tony Blair) is millennial milk and honey for those who like their high teas heightened by intelligent debate.

Intentional debate? Surely, "Two Thousand Years" yields decades-old conflicts of a Jewishly interior nature as Leigh alights on the secrets and lies and promises that make the Promised Land a potential minefield in the battle between secular and religious, faithful and faithless.

Directed by artistic director Scott Elliott, this New Group production at the Acorn Theatre -- after a sold-out run in Leigh's London -- is, appropriately, located on Theater Row, because it may very well cause just that in its less than vaunted views of the current state the State of Israel is in.

Which is not to say that it doesn't give its hechsher to Theodor Herzl's dream state. But that playing field, argues Leigh, is unleveled since it first allowed access to players to run pell mell with their ideological playbooks.

The multiple award-winning director/writer of such acclaimed screenplays as "Secrets & Lies," "Naked," "Topsy- Turvy," "Vera Drake" and "All or Nothing," gives and takes it all or nothing.

But then, nothing suits the still rebellious 64-year-old more than rekindling the kibbutzim fire that once stoked his own social agenda and seeing where its ashes fall. Idealism as kindling for a not-so-kindly knock on how Israel's past has been betrayed by its current state of affairs?

Is Leigh looking for an argument? He certainly has courted it before. As a signatory to Independent Jewish Voices' call in a promulgated position paper in the Guardian's comment Web site, he is no arriviste to the argument.

Don't expect him to bring the ziplock bags for the next ZOA luncheon: Last year, he joined such other Brit Jewish artists as Harold Pinter and Stephen Frye on the Internet internecine inveighment, calling for a freer voice in his nation's assessing Israel's position in the world, wary of those official Jewish spokesmen who "put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people."

Excoriated for his controversial X-ray and rattling a nation's skeletons? Occupational hazard for a left-leaning writer.

What occupies Leigh's time now is the production at the Acorn, where the former member of Habonim harbors an ongoing relationship with the New Group, which has produced a number of his plays in the past, including "Abigail's Party."

Leigh is party this time to the theatrical combustible confetti tossed by the conflicted Jewish family onstage, where the parents zap Zionism's betrayal at the hands of current-day Israel, while their own jobless 28-year-old son Josh betrays their secular security by sizing up Judaism as a possible answer to his own inner torment.

Teffilin as trapping for the soul? Kipah as a disconnect to reality? "It's like having a Muslim in the house," declares an outraged father on seeing his son don his kipah.

Josh as Jewish joke? Judaism as injudicious cause for alarm? It is, in many ways, a walk on the wild side for Mike Leigh.

"I long ago walked away from Judaism," says the son of a family whose original surname was Lieberman. "But you can't really walk away from being Jewish, can you?"

It casts quite a shadow no matter where you shuffle. "You are what you are."

And for Leigh, what he is is a writer whose Jewish past has seeped into all his plays at one stage or another. Indeed, despite claims by others to the contrary, "Two Thousand Years" is not light years spiritually away from his other efforts.

"I have written all kinds of Jewish plays, meaning plays about being Jewish," whether the characters are or not.

It's in his character, he claims, to do so.

But then, it's a genetic pool, in which there's always a fine line between shallow and deep end. His plays, notably this one, are shaded in the concerns of what he is -- "a secular liberal Jew with left-wing Zionist" dreams, whose "early introduction to kibbutz and its ideological origins has informed my life."

Background information on the acclaimed director reveals a longtime love for collaborative creation; it's the Leigh way. Indeed, this current script is in keeping with his concern for forming art out of dialogues with his actors and direction of the story line afforded by his imprimatur for improvisation.

"I create, appropriately, kibbutz-style," he kibitzes.

But this former kibbutznik is not raising an olive branch. More an AK47 of acrimony?

That's to miss the bullet point of the playwright's perspective, he notes: "What I am doing is pondering Israel without the perversion of polemics. I am interested in seeing how Zionism is playing out. In Israel, there is no sense of the long-term; all is about the short term," says the great-grandson of a Zionist newspaper editor. "I cannot be but deeply stressed about what I see now."

People are misinformed about the Mideast, he contends, because "we are reared in propaganda."

Controversial, contrarian, confrontational; "Naked" come the comments from his heart of hearts, unclothed by political correctness or concern that others conform to his ideas.

"We now know that the Arabs are not generic; they are not a moveable entity. The Palestinians were forced out; we now admit it. We have stepped back from being blind."

Leigh sees the stage as an opportunity to seize attention. But can his views find a home -- or a hot spot -- before American Jewish audiences? "It depends on the demographic," he says of those attending. "There are some who would probably like to tear up the stage. The bottom line is that this is a play about families, integrity and belief."

It is his own belief that Karl Marx was right, offering a theatrical manifest destiny of one of his points. "Call me old-fashioned, but I believe religion is the opiate of the masses," says Leigh.

High hopes for the family on stage? Depends on which side of the fence the kipah falls. By play's end, Josh's Jewish kup is unclad. But then, how many hats does Leigh wear?

"For many years, I wouldn't mention that I was Jewish," admits the writer/director. "But I've become more relaxed with that. When I decided to do this play, it involved taking a deep breath and jumping in."

Whether the water's fine depends on whether one sees "Two Thousand Years" as tanking or tenaciously gripping. Without argument, it is argumentative.

And Leigh himself has no argument with provocation; anything, the knighted artist seems to say, but being benighted.

"I'll be 65 [this month]. You deal with [life's] slices as they come, coming to terms with what you are."

His plays certainly play into that, as do the many films.

"They are an ongoing investigation" of life, he claims.

A detective from the Diaspora? Or simply a seditious, self-hating Jew? No, he counters, unless one defines self-hating "as someone who hates a lot of what Jewish means for a lot of people. But the whole premise of the question is very perverse."

As would be a misreading of the play's intent, he adds. "If people pay attention to the play," they'll know that it's "not a mouthpiece for extreme, two-dimensional views. This is a play about people bottling up their emotions."

With all of its arguments, contretemps and controversies, aren't the parents and kids on stage -- along with the daughter's Israeli boyfriend -- just another jaded dysfunctional Jewish family?

Leigh disses that diligently. "Actually," reasons the writer, "this is a play about a functional family." 

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