Just who are the "assembled parties" in Richard Greenberg's entertaining new comedy drama? And why does he call them "parties," rather than, say, relatives?
At first glance, the assemblage would appear to be closely related, either by marriage or friendship. But by the end of this two-and-a-half hour production, each of the characters seems to inhabit separate interior worlds.
Under the brisk direction of Lynne Meadow, The Assembled Parties takes the form of a traditional family play where the audience expects the characters to reveal secrets about themselves and their relatives and that things will fall apart by the end of the gathering.
All the characters get lost— either symbolically or literally— in a rambling 14-room pre-War apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which revolves like a merry-go-round from kitchen to foyer to living room to dining room to bedroom. The handsome set, designed by Woody Allen's frequent collaborator Santo Loquasto, might be described as a character in itself.
Cracks in the marriage
"You would love the apartment, Mom," the awestruck young visitor, Jeff, tells his mother during a hurried phone call. "It's like the sets of those plays you love. 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, but it isn't there? But it's here." Or is it?
Act I takes place on Christmas Day of 1980. If you didn't happen to read the Playbill, the clothes and the phones with their long cords would tell you immediately. Christmas decorations and a large tree take center stage, even though Julie and Ben Bascov, the occupants, are Jewish.
Julie, a former movie star (played by the ravishing Jessica Hecht), is the prized acquisition of her husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker), who seemingly adores her. But a rapid, hostile scene between them hints at cracks in their seemingly perfect marriage.
Faye and Mort, Ben's sister and her husband, are obviously and pointedly less elegant and well off. The other characters are the Bascovs' sons, Scotty and Tim, and their weird, socially inept cousin, Shelley (a very funny Lauren Blumenfeld). Jeff, Scotty's college friend and invited guest, functions as the de facto narrator, involved yet removed, much the way Nick Carraway tells Jay Gatsby's story.
Twenty years later
When the curtain rises on Act II, it's 20 years later— Christmas Day 2000. The promising golden boy Scotty (Jake Silbermann) has died of AIDS. His younger brother, Tim (also played by Silbermann), is now the center of family concern as a wayward kid who refuses to follow everyone's great expectations. His father Ben is also deceased, and also disgraced because of conduct unbecoming (and unspecified) during those past two decades.
The same fate seems to have befallen Julie's brother-in-law, Mort (Mark Blum), an unsavory blackmailer. His wife, Faye (the wonderful actress and comedian Judith Light) now takes charge of the family, along with that faithful friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), now a rather staid lawyer, still enamored of Julie.
As the audience filed out of the theater, animated discussion of the play spilled out onto the sidewalk: How did Scotty contract AIDS? Where did Faye's immigrant mother acquire a valuable ruby necklace? Exactly what sins had Ben committed?
But within a few days I had lost interest in the answers. Greenberg's clever and glittering repartee faded from memory in the face of the plot's increasingly obvious contrivances. For most families, things do change or turn out differently than expected— and that being the case, why should the audience be shocked or surprised?
Only the two women remained vivid: Jessica Hecht and Judith Light— superb actors whose performances embodied the enduring qualities of strength and fortitude in the face of life's challenges. They are reason enough not to miss The Assembled Parties.