Theatre Review: ‘The Assembled Parties’

OBERT FELDBERG, North Jersey.com

Over nearly 30 years, Richard Greenberg has written two dozen plays about various aspects of American life, including the Tony-winning "Take Me Out."

None, though — at least of the 12 or 13 I've seen — approaches his splendid achievement with "The Assembled Parties."

The play, which opened Wednesday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is very, very funny, and, as it ends, deeply moving.

What's most impressive, though, is Greenberg's command of his craft in weaving an ambitious, intricately connected tapestry of family relationships: husbands and wives, brother and sister, and, most profoundly, parents and children.

The story takes place on two Christmas Days, in 1980 and 2000, in the elegant 14-room Central Park West apartment of Julie (Jessica Hecht) and Ben (Jonathan Walker) Bascov, a debonair, middle-aged couple. They have two sons, who were widely spaced.

Scott (Jake Silbermann), a recent college graduate, is a sweet-natured, good-looking young man of no particular ambition, but someone his family and friends think, only half-jokingly, will be president one day. His younger brother, Timmy (Alex Dreier), is 4 years old.

The tradition of this non-observant Jewish family is to celebrate Christmas with Ben's older sister, the tart-tongued Faye (Judith Light); her husband, Mort (Mark Blum), and their slow-witted 30-year-old daughter, Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld).

It was Faye's unexpected pregnancy with Shelley that led to Faye and Mort marrying, without love, and to Faye's rejection by her mother.

She's frustrated by Shelley, hoping she'll find a man, yet also worried that she will. ("I don't want her to be one of those couples — the patronized: Isn't it nice; they found each other. People like that, they find each other, they compound the oddness.")

There's also an additional guest this year, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a smart and sensitive college friend of Scott's.

Before dinner, in the engrossing first act, everyone breaks up into shifting groups of two or three people for conversation, inhabiting different sections of the enormous apartment.

The set revolves, giving us short scenes in the various rooms: We're witnessing conversations that are going on simultaneously, a panorama of the intersections of these lives.

Ben and Faye talk about their gravely ill mother, whom neither one adores. (Faye: "She's dying." Ben: "She's been dying as long as we've known her." Faye: "Now she's dying worse.")

Ben and Morty have a fraught moment, involving a ruby — or perhaps fake-ruby — necklace, whose significance won't become clear until much later.

Jeff finds himself alone with Shelley, for a conversation that ranges from weird to surreal. Desperate to find a common topic, he ends up talking about the difficulty finding a parking spot at the Roosevelt Field mall on Long Island, where she works as a saleswoman in a department store.

("So, is that your primary ... area of interest? Retail?" he asks, to which she gives her standard response: "I don't mind.")

Passage of time

More pleasurably for him, he also spends time in the kitchen, assisting Julie in getting her gourmet meal ready.

A film actress when she was younger, Julie is a woman of enormous charm, elegance and charisma, as well as boundless optimism, and Jeff develops a huge platonic crush on her.

With the dramatic table set, the first act ends. When the curtain comes up again, it's 20 years later. And while the simple passage of time has its own poignancy, the years have not been kind to the two families.

There have been deaths, and one character is seriously ill. Jeff, who's become a successful lawyer but has few personal attachments, is again visiting. Timmy (Silbermann) is now a grown man, but he's at loose ends. With money having become tight, the apartment is in need of repairs.

There are explanations and revelations — some of them a bit glib — and we come to see that the play is essentially about the two matriarchs, Julie and Faye, and the bond that developed between them over the years as they each faced difficult times, and survived.

Light is a terrific comic actress, while also revealing the hurt just beneath Faye's skin, while Hecht, given the daunting task of portraying a woman of infinite appeal, comes through with a performance that makes Julie not only alluring, but admirable, as well.

"The Assembled Parties," directed by Lynne Meadow with great finesse, ends on the hopeful note of families being renewed by each succeeding generation. It's a good way to conclude an exhilarating evening.

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