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In ‘Assembled Parties,’ years spanned, lessons learned


NEW YORK -- In Act One of The Assembled Parties, we're introduced to a Manhattan family with, it seems, much to be grateful for. Ben, a successful, middle-aged lawyer, lives with his elegant wife, Julie, and their 4-year-old son, Timmy, in a 14-room apartment on Central Park West. An older son, Scotty, has just graduated from a prestigious university.

Their blessings are reinforced as they are joined, on Christmas Day in 1980, by Ben's sister, Faye, along with her less prosperous husband and mousy daughter; and by Scotty's college buddy, Jeff, who while equally bright and apparently more focused appears to lack his friend's confidence and poise.

But appearances can be deceiving in Richard Greenberg's endearing new play, which opened Wednesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. By the time Act Two unfolds -- 20 years later, in the same apartment -- we have learned that these folks are all vulnerable to bad choices, the whims of fortune and the simple passing of time.

That is Parties' bittersweet lesson; and in this Manhattan Theatre Club production, it is reinforced with warmth and wit by a seasoned cast nimbly directed by Lynne Meadow and led by Jessica Hecht, Judith Light and Jeremy Shamos as, respectively, Julie, Faye and Jeff, the most prominent and vivid characters.

Julie and Faye are established as foils early on. Both are members of the pre-Baby Boom generation, though Faye is slightly older; and like everyone else in Parties, both are Jewish, a factor that gives them some sense of shared cultural identity. But Julie, a former teenage film star, adopts a vaguely flighty cheerfulness to avoid confrontation or painful introspection. She uses the word "lovely" a good deal.

Faye, in contrast, makes sure that everyone knows how difficult her lot is with Mort and Shelley, sometimes embellishing her complaints with Yiddish. "Do you want me to hate you the way everyone thinks I should?" she asks Julie at one point.

In fact, the women grow closer, and forge a common bond as mothers who want better things for their children, and themselves, even as they realize such fulfillment is elusive. Hecht's artfully quirky performance makes it clear that Julie is both sharper and sadder than she lets on, while Light mines the gutsy fortitude behind Faye's whining.

Shamos, too, is funny and moving, tracing Jeff's journey from an insecure but ambitious young man to one who is wearier but perhaps more generous and, in his way, determined. When Timmy turns up in Act Two as Tim, a somewhat lost 24-year-old, Jeff compels him to accept and return his mother's affection -- though not before Julie, whose own days are now numbered, can express her concern.

"He's so unfinished," she says wistfully. "I still have so much to do to him." Instead, her son will have to finish himself; and Parties manages to find a certain comfort in that inevitability.

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