All is forgiven, Richard Greenberg. The busiest playwright in New York this season bounces back from “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” with “The Assembled Parties,” an original new play that is funny, sad and lovely – and above all, superlatively acted, by an eight-member cast led by Judith Light and Jessica Hecht, portraying an extended Jewish family celebrating two Christmases 20 years apart.
The play opens on Christmas Day, 1980, when the Bascov family is gathering in their cavernous 14-room apartment on the Upper West Side, delightfully designed by Santo Loquasto as a series of rooms that rotate into view.
“This place is, like, you need a Sherpa,” says Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a first-year law student and first-time visitor, who spends much of his time before dinner in the kitchen with Julie (Jessica Hecht), the mother of his friend Scotty. Julie was a movie star when she was a teenager but downplays her fame (“My main talent was not looking like Sandra Dee.”) She since has settled into quiet married life with her wealthy husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) and their sons Scotty (Jake Silbermann) and little Timmy (Alex Dreier). While they wait for the rest of the dinner guests to arrive, Jeff and Julie get to know one another. Jeff was a college friend of Scotty. Julie fondly remembers their recent graduation – “all of you- so witty, so oblique, so over-educated, so utterly ignorant of absolutely everything.”
We don’t actually meet Scotty until near the end of Act I, and in the meantime hear the other characters talk of him as so extraordinary that they literally believe he will become president of the United States.
Soon, Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light) arrives with her family – her crude husband Mort (Mark Blum) and their socially inept daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld).
In different rooms of the house, we hear different conversations – an angry one between brothers-in-law Ben and Mort; an awkward first-time conversation between Jeff and Shelley; a jocular one between friends Jeff and Scotty; a sweet one between brothers Scotty and Timmy; a bitter one between sisters-in-law Faye and Julie. Faye complains about her daughter, whose slowness she finds worrisome, and about her mother, whose hostility has not abated although she is dying and losing her marbles: “The sense of neglect is the last to go.”
There is a slyness to these conversations on the part of the playwright that isn’t evident until the second act. It would be wrong of me to elaborate, except to say that they subtly focus on predictions for the future — and we learn just how unreliable predictions are in the Christmas gathering in 2000, when we see what has changed.
There is plenty of plot in “The Assembled Parties” — a mysterious red necklace, several secrets revealed, a resolution that is implausible, though not unforgivably so. There are any number of themes – the power of loss; the frailty of expectation; the complexity of family dynamics — immutable, except when they’re not: As one character puts it, “times change and new symmetries develop.” But neither its plot points nor its themes make “The Assembled Parties” stand out; there is less clarity and certainty in them than in Greenberg’s best plays, such as “Take Me Out.” What makes the play most satisfying is as a canvas for first-rate acting, performances that allow us to see these characters in a clarifying and affectionate light.
Jeremy Shamos, who played two startlingly different characters in “Clybourne Park” 50 years apart, here plays the same character 20 years apart, in some ways a more impressive achievement; he is unmistakably older in a myriad of ways, but lurking inside him just as unmistakably is the same insecure young man who has a crush on the whole family.
Judith Light, on a roll that began two years ago in her Tony-nominated performance as the wife in “Lombardi” and then her Tony-winning performance as the drunken sister in “Other Desert Cities,” here continues as the sister-in-law who is hilarious in her dissatisfaction with both her family and with the politics of the moment, even as she denies she is dissatisfied with either.
This is the first role I’ve seen of Jessica Hecht where I’ve understood why so many people rave about her. I had trouble getting past her Brooklyn accent in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” , thought her too one-note in “A View From The Bridge,” and saw her interpretation of the stuffy sister in “Harvey” as a tad eccentric, though she did show herself to be a good physical comedienne. But she is the center of “The Assembled Parties,” playing with great and meticulous style a character who tries to see the positive in everybody’s failings, including her own. Julie has a natural elegance, perhaps inheriting some of it from her hard-working mother, who was a well-known dress designer — in one touching scene, she wears one of her mother’s wonderful designs (which of course puts pressure on costume designer Jane Greenwood, who delivers the goods.) There is something odd and mesmerizing about her, the kind of character that anybody could fall in love with.
Also notable is Jake Silbermann who plays two different characters with wholly persuasive and impressive change in body language.
Credit for these captivating transformations must go in part to the spot-on direction is by Lynn Meadow, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club, which has had a long-term relationship with Richard Greenberg; this is his eighth play there over the last 25 years. May he have at least eight more over the next 25.
The Assembled Parties
At Samuel L. Friedman Theater
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Lynn Meadow
Set design by Santo Loquasto, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, original music and sound design by Obadiah Eaves
Cast: Jessica Hecht, Judith Light, Jeremy Shamos, Mark Blum, Lauren Blumenfeld, Alex Dreier, Jake Silbermann, Jonathan Walker
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $67.00 – $120.00