Saturday, February 16, 2008

Two Thousand Years

Last Friday I saw a play about a secular Jewish family in England that was thrown askance when the son turned to religion. Last night I saw a play about a secular Jewish family in England that was thrown askance when the son turned to religion. I enjoyed last night’s a whole lot more, though, because “Two Thousand Years” has something “Grace” doesn’t -- IT HAS MERWIN GOLDSMITH!

In “Two Thousand Years,” Mike Leigh’s new comedy making its American debut on Theatre Row, Merwin (in photo, center) plays Dave, the grandfather, an aging socialist generally displeased by everything and everybody in the current government, and in his family. Merwin, who is one of the most thoughtful, genial people I know, is so much fun to watch as this impatient curmudgeon -- the “New York Times” singled out his performance, citing “an amusingly cranky Merwin Goldsmith.”

I waited for Merwin, who is definitely amusing but definitely not cranky, after the show. My friend Carolyn Hearn, Merwin and his three friends and I then went across the street to the West Bank Cafe, a great theatre hangout where other cast members were gathering, and caught up over drinks and snacks until midnight. Merwin told us Mike Leigh said his British accent was dead-on, something Merwin attributes to his four years studying and performing in England after college. I already knew Merwin was great as a Brit because his answering machine message is my all-time favorite. He plays an English butler and is just a hoot.

As is typical for an actor, Merwin had some good news and some bad news, the bad being that he lost his recurring role as a judge on “Law and Order” when the show replaced all its judges with ones under 50. But the good news really lit up his face. After auditioning and not being cast for Broadway’s recent revival of “Cyrano,” Merwin was cast in “Hearts” at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE and experienced a professional high point, with audiences responding so strongly to this play dealing with war-related post traumatic stress that they wanted to stay and talk about it well past the final curtain. He said it was one of the most potent theatrical experiences of his life. He then whispered to me how good it is that God works things out -- had he been cast in “Cyrano” he would not only have missed the CENTERSTAGE production, but he would have been out of work because of the stagehands strike that shut down Broadway for weeks.

I love people with faith perspectives like that. It was faith and show business that brought us together in the first place. Actually, it was first my friend Loraine Heller who did the matchmaking. Loraine, who knew I was looking for spiritually inclined actors for my book Working on the Inside, was worshiping at Park Avenue Synagogue one Saturday morning when she heard a gorgeous voice singing behind her. A singer herself, Loraine can be really critical of other singers, especially those Broadway shouters who are cast so often today. She turned around to ask the owner of that voice if he was a singer. He said yes, and that he was also an actor. Loraine turned back, but then thought -- actor, religious, Retta. So she turned back again to the singer and told him about her friend’s project. Merwin introduced himself, gave her his card and said he’d love to be part of the book.

Loraine’s discovery proved to be a real blessing to me. Not only did Merwin provide much insight into the importance of ritual in Judaism and acting, but at the end of our interview he told me he is also a photographer and offered to take my book photo. When it was time, he did, and we had a blast for four hours doing the photo shoot in Times Square and the Theatre at St. Clement’s. We’ve been friends ever since. (You can see one of those photos on the upper right side of this blog.)

“Two Thousand Years” was originally scheduled to close March 8, but the run has been extended to March 22, when it will have to close to make way for another show. It had its world premiere at the National Theatre on London’s West End in September 2005 and enjoyed a sold-out run through January 31, 2006.

I asked Merwin what’s next and he cried out in typical actor despair: “I’ll never work again.” Other great roles will be coming his way; there’s not a single doubt in my mind about that. In the meantime, he plays Mr. Monopoly in promotions for that game and is Ben Franklin in ads for Chevy Chase Bank in the Washington, D.C. area.

I’ll close today by sharing some of Merwin’s wisdom from “Working on the Inside:” “Acting is a talent. What that talent is is not a mystery. Where it comes from is. It’s scary sometimes because you seem to be in touch with something beyond you. You’re hit with emotions or feelings that have been buried so long and maybe you can’t identify the source of them. It’s that touch of the divine. It’s a little scary to get close to something really powerful.”

Scary, yes, but wonderful too. I know another great role will follow this one for you soon, Merwin.

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