George Packer’s Laudable Debut; Mike Leigh’s Lamentable Latest

The America he initially welcomed as the symbol of freedom and democracy doesn’t want him. His shameful fate—like that of others damned to flight or death in the play—will surely make your blood boil. Yet the thoroughly decent Adnan (who’s wonderfully played by the compassionate Waleed F. Zuaiter) tells us calmly that he still dreams forgivingly of America.

Mr. Packer the journalist has no doubt that such good men have been betrayed. Mr. Packer the playwright is pointing to a more open question about heartbreaking, fragile humanity.

Mike Leigh, the renowned British film director and playwright, has written and directed over 20 stage plays (the well-regarded Abigail’s Party and Goose Pimples among them), and it gives me no pleasure to report that Mr. Packer’s first play is a hundred times better than Mr. Leigh’s latest.

Betrayed is a lethal parable about American ignorance abroad, whereas Mr. Leigh’s Two Thousand Years is a middle-class social comedy of sorts masquerading as a parable about Israel.

Staged by Mr. Leigh’s longtime director in New York, Scott Elliott of the New Group, the belabored evening, accompanied by numerous blackouts and pro-forma klezmer music, promises much, much more than it delivers. It arrives here via a successful run at the National Theatre, which only proves that not everything that arrives here ought to.

Mr. Leigh has done little more than write a Jewish version of the cozy British TV soap EastEnders with variations on its trademark line, “I think I’ll put the kettle on.” Though he’s admired for his keen sense of social realism, little or nothing in Two Thousand Years appears to be rooted in any reality. Mr. Leigh has given us instead an awesomely mundane, meandering “slice of life” in which everyone’s glib opinion is just “like” those of real people. The sorry outcome is a reality show about a secular Jewish family with seriously stupid problems. Take the pivotal early scene concerning Josh’s yarmulke.

The 27-year-old son of well-meaning Danny the dentist and his overpatient wife, Rachel, Josh is a surly shlump who’s dropped out of life after a promising university education. He’s still living moodily with his parents. One day, he returns home furtively and closes the curtains in the living room. The fuss made over this! We can’t quite see what he’s doing behind the sofa. He appears to be wrapping his arm tightly in leather in order to inject himself with heroin. It’s a laborious set-up. He’s wrapping his arm in tefilin. And then out comes the yarmulke.

When his parents discover him wearing it, much hysterical parental consternation ensues. “It’s like having a Muslim in the house!” complains dad. “Or a Martian.” Some in the audience found this amusing, and the scene was played for laughs. Why a yarmulke should be seen as automatically funny mystifies me, but let it pass. Mr. Leigh crucially neglects to provide Josh with any reason for his newly found religious piety, and the scene ends conveniently with the peculiarly outraged parents rushing offstage for a defiant meal of bacon
and eggs.

This isn’t, then, a serious play about Jewish identity. It’s a contrived, second-rate sitcom. The talk and kvetching about early Zionist utopianism or the price of religious fanaticism are token window dressing and even dated. There’s no intellectual muscle to the play, and a surprising lack of emotional authenticity. The very belated appearance of the deluded and loathed alcoholic aunt who’s been estranged from the family for over a decade doesn’t, strictly speaking, even belong in the play. Aunt Michelle is just there, to save the day perhaps, like grumpy Grandpa’s bad jokes and death-defying asthma attacks.

Or she’s a symbol. By the end of Two Thousand Years, Mr. Leigh appears to be telling us all sentimentally, “Hey, give peace a chance.”

Not this time.

George Packer’s Laudable Debut; Mike Leigh’s Lamentable Latest