EmptyTheatre Row's Acorn Theatre, New York
Through March 8
"American Pie" star Natasha Lyonne personal struggles have been tabloid fodder for years. But who knows how much of what's been written about her is true?
What isn't up for debate is that her acting chops are better than ever, as evidenced by her performance in the ensemble cast of writer-director Mike Leigh's latest production, "Two Thousand Years."
Unfortunately, Lyonne's seemingly miraculous turnaround is of far more interest than Leigh's dialogue. Despite a resume that includes the Oscar-nominated "Secrets & Lies," "Topsy-Turvy" and "Vera Drake," as well as stage hits like "Abigail's Party," Leigh lays a bona fide goose egg with "Years."
It depicts a family of Jewish intellectuals in a London suburb, charting their actions from 2004-05. Rachel (Laura Esterman) and Danny (Richard Masur) are a middle-age, seemingly happy couple, living with their sullen, unemployed 28-year-old son Josh (Jordan Gelber) and awaiting the return from Venezuela of worldly daughter Tammy (Lyonne). Rachel's crotchety dad, her long-lost sister, a good-hearted neighbor and Tammy's latest beau also wander in and out of the comfy living room.
Typically, Leigh starts off slowly, letting the characters spout off on world figures (President Bush, Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat) and current events (Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11, Hugo Chavez's political triumph). After a few digressions on bigotry, lost idealism and the West Bank/Gaza debate, the subject becomes more focused: what it means to be Jewish. That's intimately explored when -- to the family's shock -- Josh reveals his Orthodox leanings. As fuel to the fire, Tammy's boyfriend turns out to a kibbutz-promoting Israeli. What's a pair of disillusioned socialists to do?
According to Leigh, not much. Although he apparently put thought into the play's structure -- bookending it with nearly identical motifs -- not as much brain power went toward the characters' dynamics. It ends up as yet another look at three generations of a dysfunctional family. And as with any clan's feud, there's lots of yelling, reaching headache-inducing levels in Act 2. Veteran director Scott Elliott deserves the blame there.
That said, Elliott draws fine acting from the ensemble. Aside from Lyonne's expert mastery of a British accent, the ever-reliable Masur practically disappears into his multilayered take on the sentient Danny. Esterman proves every bit Masur's equal as Danny's long-suffering spouse.
Gelber has perhaps the toughest role: trying to make the surly Josh both annoying and vulnerable. He pulls it off with seeming ease. Rounding out the cast, Merwin Goldsmith, Cindy Katz and Yuval Boim provide first-rate support.
Yet, the troupe's efforts only take the vehicle so far. Leigh is a master of slice-of-life studies, but not this time around. Sadly, the attention spent on the casting and symmetry of "Years" didn't extend to its content.
TWO THOUSAND YEARS
Presented by The New Group
Playwright: Mike Leigh
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Original music: The Klezmatics
Danny: Richard Masur
Rachel: Laura Esterman
Tammy: Natasha Lyonne
Josh: Jordan Gelber
Dave: Merwin Goldsmith
Michelle: Cindy Katz
Jonathan: David Cale
Tzachi: Yuval Boim