Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mike Leigh in Yiddish

Just back from Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years, which is in previews at the Acorn on 42nd Street. I was rather eager to see the play, first because Mike Leigh is horribly amusing (or amusingly horrible), second because he has never dealt with the subject of Jewishness, though he is the son of a Jewish doctor (the name must have been Levy... or something) – it would seem that he scrupulously omits autobiography from his plays, which often developed (so goes the scuttlebutt) from actors' improvisations. My third reason to go is that I am an assimilated Jew, and have always been rather puzzled what this meant, how much it should impact on my existence.

First of all, I should say that there has been no scuttlebutt (so far as I am aware, but I'm 3000 miles away) as to how close or distant anything in Two Thousand Years is to Leigh's own family. It can't be autobiographical, because the play is set roughly in the present day (2004-5), and Leigh would be a bit older than most of his characters. It isn't very close to my experience, either, because though they are an assimilated Jewish family, they are a great deal closer to the Zionist experience than mine has been: some of them were born in Israeli kibbutzes, and all of them toss Yiddish phrases into conversation, whereas when I was growing up, it was very rare to hear a single word of it. (I learned Yiddish phrases from friends at Columbia and tried them out on my grandparents – to their great amusement, as they knew perfectly well I could not have acquired such things in their highly Anglophone homes, where the "mama loshin" was Gilbert & Sullivan, Shakespeare and Mark Twain.)

Second, though the play's title seems to imply that Jewishness is the subject, and perhaps we are intended to keep it in mind during the 21st-century goings-on of half a dozen damaged, dysfunctional and variously hysterical self-absorbed English Jews plus a single well-mannered and considerate Israeli (joke! but he means it) outsider. (There is also an English outsider, painfully present only to provide backstory, if we need it.)

The subject of the play is how disastrously self-absorbed members of the middle classes interact, restrained by civility in the presence of strangers (but unrestrained with relatives). In other words, it's a Mike Leigh play. I've seen Goosepimples and Abigail's Party, and the films Topsy-Turvy and Naked, in which Jews were as conspicuous for their absence as rational behavior. Two Thousand Years is about Jews, on the surface, but underneath it's just another Mike Leigh play where you start giggling and end up cringing, grateful that you're not related to, or sexually involved with, anyone this ghastly. This makes me wonder if the other plays (he's written two dozen or so, most of them too Brit to jump the pond, plus a lot of films, most notably Vera Drake) were not in fact about his family circumstances and not (as they seemed to be) about the contempt of Britain's professional class for the pathetic aspirations of the lower middle classes. (In Britain, everything boils down to class – or does it?)

To an American Jew, it is puzzling that Mike Leigh has never written a play dealing in any perceivable way with his Jewishness – except that Britain's other two most distinguished playwrights, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, have never overtly dealt with their Jewishness in their plays either (so far as I know). It is, in other words, a British trait, not a Jewish one, to exercise such restraint. In this country, all our playwrights are autobiographical to one degree or another: Tennessee Williams's plays are about having a romantic and female sensibility in a body that is not going to be able to inhabit such a life; Edward Albee's plays are about the evil of mothers; Cliff Odets's plays are about rising from the (Jewish) underclass successfully enough to sell out; Lillian Hellman's plays are about families keeping evil secrets from one another, right out in the open (she never dealt with her Jewishness onstage either, however); Eugene O'Neill's plays are about Irish myth-making and its poisonous operations in daily life; David Mamet's plays are about the delights and perils of a life of macho bullshit. But British playwrights don't live their mishigoss out in public so overtly. (Another reason it is inane to say Shakespeare couldn't have written Shakespeare because his plays are about royalty and not about being arrested for poaching while courting a pregnant older woman.)

Some years ago I knew a delightful English lady (really, a lady; her husband is a knight), who told me the English are brought up to be so English that all ethnicity fades, or is expected to fade, to become something to put behind one, or under the rug. This is obviously not going to wash with people who look unBrit (skin color, etc.), so it is a doomed aspect of Englishness, but her generation had grown up uncertain whether they were Jewish or not (even if they were observant) or English or not, because they were educated, unconsciously, to regard every otherness as threatening to Englishness, as shameful somehow, as less than proper, as alien ethnic survival. Stop going to a church (or temple) where people believe; go to a nice good Church of England church where it's all about the singing and the decor and how the vicar's wife dresses. Her ladyship told me proudly how pleased she was when her husband got a contract to write a history of Israel: "It meant we had to live there for several years, while our boys were growing up, so they had the experience of being Jews in a place where being Jewish wasn't questioned. And by the time we got home, they both knew they were Jews, whatever else they were, so they've not gone on being slightly ashamed of it. As I suspect many English Jews are."

Well, now to the play (spoilers ahead! don't read this if you haven't seen the play and intend to go):

Dave is a dentist, married to Rachel. Her parents are in the 70s and slowing down, but her father is still irascible as hell. Rachel has a sister, a successful investment banker who hasn't communicated with the family for years. One child, Tammy, is a successful translator for the U.N., idealistic and vital. The other, Josh, is 27, a brainy, jobless college grad, fat and lonely, who hides in his room and reads a lot and is jealous of his sister. They are the sort of Jews who love going to Rome on vacation, though they think the Vatican tasteless. (All that gold, and then all those beggars on the steps.) Act I sets up all this. A shock in scene 2: Josh, alone in the house, comes into the room, and hides in a sofa behind the front sofa. We see him winding something tightly around his arm. We suspect what he's getting into. But he's not: it's tefilin. He's trying to become Orthodox. This is as shocking to his parents (when they find out, which is soon) as if he were on drugs, or (I couldn't help but think) gay. His mother catches him dovening. His grandfather is revolted at seeing him in a kipa.

But the exploration of Jewish identity which this seems likely to lead to never does begin, at least not overtly, and indeed Josh is in no hurry to urge it on them. (He never suggests his parents keep a kosher kitchen. They wouldn't if he did.) The conversation (and much of the play is rather static conversation) is more often about current politics, Israel's betrayal of its socialist ideals, England's &c., the plight of the Palestinians. In Act II, Rachel's unseen mother has been dead three months, the widower is more irascible than ever, Josh's oddness is more or less accepted with a general shrug, and Tammy comes home with an Israeli boyfriend (decidedly hot, but also sweet). He is not the catalyst, though: he is the witness and outsider (like the hapless Turk in Goosepimples). The catalyst for action is the last character to arrive, the long-lost banker sister, who has just found out her mother is dead and has come wailing to the house seeking – who knows what? She is so self-involved, and the others are so unyieldingly angry with her, that we never do know (does she? It's a bravura part, and a bravura performance), but at the climax of the play, all four adults are on their feet screaming at each other (a familiar situation in Leigh) and peace is only brought upon the house when the Israeli breaks it up, shakes hands all around (irony: his good manners are stronger than those of anyone English), takes his girl and departs. (We in the audience are all wondering: why does he still want to be with her when he knows what her family is like?) His determined acknowledgment of everyone else on stage has calmed things down – for one thing, Josh is stunned by it, and then acknowledges his grandfather. Everyone lets their grudges go just a bit. (Except the mad sister, who steals a hefty slug of scotch and departs unregretted.) In the brief final scene, father and son – whom we have not seen relate before – are playing chess, the kipa forgotten along with the rest of the furshluginer business of acting, you know, like Yids, and mom is tsk-ing about accounts of New Orleans in the hurricane in the paper.

So is this about Jews who will fight about any subject but really mean: I'm in this family, and they should notice me! Or is it about getting along with your pretenses, in a Mike Leigh sort of way? I shall be very curious when the reviews and discussions come out. (If anyone bothers to say.) As my Gram used to say after just about any play (and she adored plays): I didn't really understand it, but the acting was terrific.

P.S. The pace is slow-ish, but the one thing that really disturbed me was the woman behind me who insisted on laughing enthusiastically at everything that entertained her, as if she were a TV laughtrack. No one else did this; she wouldn't stop. And it was the same laugh, the same number of beats, the same peeing on the carpet: "I'm here, don't you DARE pay attention to this play and leave me out!" She later got a grin and a nod from the actress playing Michelle, the mad sister – evidently she was a pal come to give support to the troops. She overplayed that hand. Everyone around me was irritated as hell, but none of us had the guts to confront her. What would we say? How does one handle this situation in a polite and well-bred fashion? "You're not funny; let them be funny." Doesn't wash. She's entitled to be amused by things that aren't funny if she wants to. The polite thing to do is keep your mouth shut and endure. Which we all of us did. She ran out of steam eventually – but only when her friend came on (middle of Act II), when she finally wanted to pay attention to the play I'd guess.

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