Sunday, April 14, 2013

‘The Assembled Parties’: Light and Hecht Shine In Richard Greenberg's Quirky New Play

'The Assembled Parties':  14 Rms Pk Vu

In The Assembled Parties, the new play by Richard Greenberg, the buzz begins almost as soon the audience members take their seats at the Friedman Theatre and begin to peruse their programs. 

There it is, right beneath the cast list.  Place:  A fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West.  Let me-GASP-repeat. A fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West. Now, that’s one sure way to get the attention of real estate-obsessed New York theatergoers!

So before saying a word about the play itself, let me tip my hat to scenic designer Santo Loquasto for his amazing multi-room revolving set, which gives us a sense of what it would be like to call such a magnificent expanse of space “home.”  If only… [sigh!]

But, I digress.

If I were to give an executive summary of The Assembled Parties, I would say it is about the truths that hurt and the lies that heal, and the unexpected acts of kindness that people are capable of bestowing on one another from time to time.  

Be warned, though; the play is something of a puzzle box.  It takes some patience to get through the opaque exposition of Act I, in which we are privy to only just enough information to lead us down the path to faulty conclusions.  It isn’t until Act II, as the characters—particularly those played most compellingly by Jessica Hecht and Judith Light—reveal themselves more fully, that we come to appreciate the play’s most satisfying heart. 

Act I and Act II take place on a two different Christmas Days, one in 1980 and the other in 2000.  In both instances, members of a Jewish family have gathered at the upscale apartment of Julie (Ms. Hecht) and Ben (Jonathan Walker), and their sons Scotty (Jake Silbermann) and Timmy (Alex Dreier).  The occasion is Christmas dinner. 

Mr. Greenberg never does explain why the Jews in his play are celebrating Christmas, nor why the apartment is filled with “goyishe tchotchkes,” as Ms. Light’s character declaims.  I will say, however, that I was reminded of playwright Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997), which opens on a character called Lala Levy busily and happily decorating a Christmas tree, until her mother chastises her: “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars!” 

[The link between the two plays is not, I think, a random coincidence, as Lala Levy was played on Broadway by an actress by the name of Jessica Hecht.  Hmmm!  And, for the record, the Christmas tree onstage at the Friedman does not have a star, but an angel on top.]

But I digress again.

As, actually, does the playwright, who appears to be toying with us throughout Act I, replete as it is with tantalizing red herrings about the relationships among the characters.   These include, in addition to the apartment dwellers, Ben’s sister Faye (Ms. Light), her husband Mort (Mark Blum), and their daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), along with Scotty’s college friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). 

Questions will surely fill your head:  Why have Faye and Mort remained in a clearly loveless marriage for so long? Why does their daughter Shelley seem to be such a misfit, reminiscent of Lisa Loopner, one of Gilda Radner’s iconic characters from Saturday Night Live?  And what is the real story behind the ruby necklace?   Do note that only some of these questions will be answered in due course. 

And any lover of language will have a field day with the play.  Characters use words like “feckless” and “quixotic” and “gravitas” in their everyday conversation; drop references to e. e. cummings, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Gail Sheehy; toss around mouthfuls like “hemidemisemiquaver” and “oasis-less desert” (try saying that one three times fast!); incorporate Yiddish expressions as if they had air quotes around them; and, in the case of Ms. Hecht, employ a heightened affectation of speech that is uniquely her own (or that of her character, a former and apparently famous movie actress).

As I said…a puzzle box.  And yet, despite the odd layers and the fragmented bits of information that Mr. Greenberg has piled on top of one another, The Assembled Parties has a rich vein of humanity running through it.  By the end, you may find yourself caught unawares and surprisingly moved, especially by the amazingly strong, caring, and optimistic women played so well by Ms. Light and Ms. Hecht.   Expect those names to appear on the list of Tony nominees. 

The cast as a whole is uniformly strong, and Lynne Meadow has directed with a sure hand.  And if the title is a little obscure, think of it in the same vein as the set of directions that might come with a Christmas present:  "some assembly required."  

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