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NEW YORK — Early in The Assembled Parties, a visitor swoons over the elegant 14-room Central Park West apartment of his hosts. “It’s like the sets of those plays you love,” he tells his mother on the phone. “With the ‘breezy dialogue.’ They sort of talk that way and everybody’s unbelievably nice and, like, gracious and happy. It’s like you go to New York and you look for New York, but it isn’t there? But it’s here.”
Winking nods such as this one are sprinkled throughout Richard Greenberg’s lovely play, which is as knowingly self-aware of being a Broadway representation of New York as a vintage Woody Allen film is in the way it portrays the city onscreen. Almost everyone is hyper-articulate. They open their mouths and ready-made witticisms, literary references or wry views on history and politics come tumbling forth. Basically, it’s like Aaron Sorkin meets Neil Simon. That should register as studied and artificial, and on many levels it does. But the cleverness is supported by a foundation of warmth, sensitivity and even delicacy that makes this funny-sad comedy as unexpectedly affecting as it is entertaining.
This is an idiosyncratic play that reveals itself slowly and perhaps never quite fully, but Lynne Meadow’s expertly gauged production has just the right feel for its shifting rhythms. So too does Santo Loquasto’s sleek set nail the significance of the environment. The revolving maze of rooms appears both pristinely perfect and yet fully inhabited; during spinning scene changes we see a connective thread of life filling the sprawling apartment’s various nooks. We also glimpse evidence of secrets, discords. More than the physical production, however, what separates this from a mannered New Yorker cartoon world is the wonderful anchoring performances of Jessica Hecht and Judith Light, both of them rich in complex humanity.
Beginning in 1980, the two acts take place exactly 20 years apart, both on Christmas Day, a holiday celebrated as a traditional whim of the secular Jewish Bascov family. Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) is an eager-to-please Harvard Law student invited to stay by Scotty (Jake Silbermann), the tan, handsome elder Bascov son who seems oddly ambivalent about the golden future that surely awaits him.
Jeff is enamored by both his friend’s home and his folks. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m marrying your mom,” he tells Scotty after playing sous chef in the kitchen to domestic goddess Julie (Hecht) as she prepares the roast goose. Describing Scotty’s father, Ben (Jonathan Walker), Jeff says, only half-jokingly, “He possesses a management style at once humane and terrifying.” Being the outsider, Jeff is enlisted by both Scotty and his parents to serve as mediator and informant; he obliges, ingratiating himself seemingly without calculation.
While Scotty’s beloved kid-brother Timmy (Alex Dreier) is confined to bed with flu, the other guests include Ben’s whip-smart but despondent sister Faye (Light), her unceremonious husband Mort (Mark Blum) and their dim-bulb daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld).
Everything about these in-laws from Jersey says they should be consumed by envy for the Bascovs’ ivory-tower existence. “I’m a character in a farce,” kvetches Faye over vodka and Valium, swearing that by nature she’s not a malcontent. “I’m cursed.” Julie, by contrast, apologizes for being fundamentally happy: “I’ve always just been borne along to pleasant places.” A former teen movie star, she is also a German Jew, which according to Ben and Faye’s unseen Eastern European mother is “just a shiksa with a problem.”
In Act I, the playwright drops clues like pieces in a puzzle — infidelity, blackmail, resentment, the scars inflicted by emotionally withholding parents, the light that’s extinguished in a tired marriage, the promise of youth and the burden of expectation. There’s also some intriguing talk of a ruby necklace. Yet most or all of these fragments of information — some of them mere impressions — prove misleading. In Greenberg’s forgiving exploration of the odd dynamics of family, blunt truths can be healing, deception can mask kindness and time can change the color of memories.
In the second act the surviving characters regroup for Christmas at the end of the century. The carousel of Loquasto’s set stops turning, affording a full view of the Bascovs’ living room and adjoining dining area in a home now leaking, faded and in need of repair. In this static frame, the outcomes are revealed — some sorrowful, some happy, none of them uncomplicated.
Greenberg’s language is demanding, but Meadow has assembled a fine ensemble that makes every line sound true, even with dialogue that’s as much sculpted as written. As the play’s observer figure, Shamos (Clybourne Park) makes Jeff a subdued, respectful mensch, enchanted by the family into which he has insinuated himself. Only in his flashes of irritation while on the phone with his crass mother early on do we get to see a more thorny side of him. Of the excellent supporting cast, the discovery is Blumenfeld, hilariously weird in her too-brief scenes.
But the production belongs to Hecht and Light, playing two women who might seem pre-programmed to dislike one another. And while there’s never an actual rift between them, it’s the visible strengthening of their mutual understanding over the lapsed time and heartbreaking circumstances of 20 years that gives the play its considerable emotional heft.
Entering with an iron grip on her handbag and something between dread and disgruntlement etched into her features, Light’s Faye is priceless, peppering her conversations with old-world Yiddishisms yet ferociously up-to-the-minute in her staunchly liberal opinions. “I’m just grateful I’m apolitical,” she says after one anti-conservative rant. Watching her soften, still retaining that core strength even while sitting straight-backed in silent tears, is intensely moving.
Hecht’s Julie is Faye’s polar opposite – ethereal, almost spacey, but at the same time unsettlingly intense with her poetic pronouncements. The actress puts a unique spin on her line readings, giving the vague impression of a woman who has deliberately muffled her natural intelligence to smooth her passage through life. And unlike Faye, who has no trouble locating her righteous bile, Julie seems entirely without malice.
The daughter of a fashion designer, Julie wears her late mother’s chic vintage outfits on special occasions (Jane Greenwood did the elegant costumes), making her appear like a dream figure, not quite of her time. Hecht’s delivery of an exquisite monologue in which she describes hiding one night to watch her undemonstrative mother at work, lovingly creating a gown on her hulking old Singer sewing machine, is wrenching and beautiful. In the play’s closing stretch, the performance becomes one of such porcelain fragility you almost fear Hecht might shatter before your eyes.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through July 28)
Cast: Jessica Hecht, Judith Light, Jeremy Shamos, Mark Blum, Lauren Blumenfeld, Alex Dreier, Jake Silbermann, Jonathan Walker
Director: Lynne Meadow
Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music & sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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