God may or may not be in the details, but most people seem to think reality is. The multitude of technological devices humans have invented to record and play back reality, from the wax cylinder to the webcam, has made modern life the most over-recorded phenomenon in human history. This craving for exact details started in the theater—Robertson, Ibsen, Zola, Belasco, Stanislavsky—but the theater always had the good sense not to get bogged down by it. Even if God is in the details, the dramatic event generally isn’t.
In earlier times, when naturalistic detail started creeping in, like aesthetic kudzu, the theater either smacked it down or shied away from it toward some more abstract form. But in recent decades, television has been the visual center of most people’s leisure lives, and it’s bred a hypnotic form of watching, in which the image itself—usually an image full of “real” details—is the single source of interest. When people devoted to the theater complain about current plays being “too much like television,” what they object to isn’t just the vapidity and oversimplification of the scripts. Vapidity and oversimplification had ensconced themselves in playwriting centuries before network programming was even a gleam in David Sarnoff’s eye. They may trivialize drama, or render it stupid, but they don’t make it less dramatic. On the contrary: Very little onstage is more exciting than an air-headed, one-dimensional melodrama, no matter how nakedly factitious. The core problem is the hypnosis: Turn the set on, and we watch. What’s on-screen doesn’t particularly matter, as long as it’s more or less representational.
Thus, we’ve come to the kind of play that, as a play, doesn’t exist, or at best barely exists; all it does is represent. Things happen, sort of. But how they happen and why they happen—the elements that make up the substance of drama—seem to have faded out of the script. Sometimes a dim reflection of a genre is present, just as you can find recollections of old stage genres in most current TV series, even in “reality” shows. Brooke Berman’s Hunting and Gathering, at Primary Stages, is the remnant of an old-style romantic comedy about young couples struggling to pair off in New York. Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years is a London echo of that longtime Broadway staple, the Jewish family play. Neither play, as an act of writing, is particularly shameful or dishonest; both have patches of interesting writing, and both visibly stem from their writers’ efforts to capture a reality truthfully. But as a play, neither one exists. The meager events that occur in them, portrayed by Berman as flukes of destiny and by Leigh as the repetitive tics of one family’s dynamics, barely affect even the characters’ lives. Both plays inhabit a world so inconsequential that Ionesco, who can tell us that the clock strikes 13 and that Mr. and Mrs. Martin have been married for years without meeting each other, seems to have a firmer grasp on its vagaries.
Berman’s characters are today’s impermanents, youngish people who drift from job to job, relationship to relationship, and apartment to apartment, never showing any particular inclination to settle anywhere. The hazy aura, and the vaguely Buddhist drifterdom of one character (Michael Chernus), suggests quasi-hippies of the post-1968 era, but the apartments these folk float through are mostly house-sittings, clandestine sublets, or temporary shares, and their slightly jumpy efforts to be correct about gender roles has a definite contemporary ring to it.
But randomness is the omnipresent force in Hunting and Gathering‘s action, so laconically displayed that remembering who doesn’t wind up with whom, two days later, takes enormous effort. When the heroine (Keira Naughton), who has broken up with her boyfriend (Jeremy Shamos)—his affair with her having broken up his marriage—meets his much younger new girlfriend (Mamie Gummer) in a bar, the two women never get deep enough into conversation to find out that they have a male partner in common. And after a point, they don’t, since that connection too is ultimately severed. Rather than relating, Berman’s people collide, like electrons; it’s particle theory as drama. On the epic scale of a 19th-century novel, such random collisions can be wound into a vision of the world, as with Dickens or Proust. (Some 20th-century European playwrights, in the now-bygone era of giant arts subsidies, actually tried to work on that scale.) But on our tight-focus stages and threadbare budgets, the randomness simply seems trivial, though Leigh Silverman stages it with painstaking delicacy, and the actors all register as likable.
A lot of actor likability comes across, too, in Scott Elliott’s staging of Two Thousand Years—a somewhat neater trick, since Leigh’s characters, as customary with Leigh, are mixes of positive and negative who tend to total up on the minus side, slightly downbeat units of mild human gloom. The comfortably off clan in Two Thousand Years—a prosperous dentist, his wife, and their grown kids—lives a life as disconnected as any in Leigh. As left-leaning Jews, they argue more openly, that’s all; what are apparently meant as the show’s comic peaks consist of several family members shouting at each other.
Somehow it’s all vaguely connected to Middle Eastern politics, the first of the many Jewish-linked topics that Leigh picks up and discards in the course of the play’s weirdly arhythmical lurch from scene to scene. Maybe it’s all about Jews’ loss of faith: When the unemployed son takes up Orthodox practices, it’s treated as a family scandal. But as in Berman’s play, the connections among these people, for all the anecdotal family background Leigh pours in, are created so laconically that it’s hard to see how their feuding, or their Jewishness, affects them. When the wife’s estranged sister arrives in Act Two, it all turns into one of those sibling bitchslaps that seemed to infest every second British play after the success of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. But as with the play’s other themes, this one’s all talk and tantrums. Nobody’s life seems to be affected by anything anyone else says or does, though presumably they, and we, would find life more pleasant if they’d all just stop kvetching already. Still, Elliott’s actors often manage to peek appealingly through the script’s prolonged discursive yelp. Laura Esterman and Richard Masur make an easily believable long-married couple; Merwin Goldsmith finds both the good and the grim in the grumbling patriarch; and Cindy Katz catches the interfering sister with grating exactitude. Even so, you might be forgiven for thinking the title refers to the show’s running time.