Throwback to the Days of Tasteful Opulence ‘The Assembled Parties’, by Richard Greenberg, at Manhatt
BEN BRANTLEY, The New York Times
There are tales, still told by the old ones of Broadway, of a time when Charm — with a capital C — was a cardinal virtue in the theater. It was an attribute that made plain actresses beautiful, and turned short, stocky men into matinee idols. Entire plays, it is said, were written in celebration of those who possessed this enviable trait, works filled with airy, tickling dialogue and the accouterments of tasteful wealth.
To my great surprise, a brand-new version of such a play has materialized at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, and it is, in a word, charming. It is also smart, sad and so impossibly well-spoken you may feel like giving up on conversation. It is called “The Assembled Parties,” written by Richard Greenberg and featuring a leading lady, Jessica Hecht, who is charm — I mean, Charm — incarnate. Mind you, her character, Julie, a product of insular urban privilege, is self-aware enough to say: “I know. I’m a throwback. It’s disgraceful.”
Mr. Greenberg, too, is fully conscious that whether on Broadway stages or in uptown salons, they seldom make ’em like Julie anymore. “The Assembled Parties,” a Manhattan Theater Club production, is an elegy to a breed of woman, a style of living and a genre of theater of which only vestiges remain in frantic, self-promoting New York. Directed with loving care by Lynne Meadow, this is an old-fashioned play that ruefully knows that its time has passed and, moreover, why it’s passed.
Set on two Christmas Days, in 1980 and 2000, “The Assembled Parties” charts the decline of the Bascov family, a rich Jewish clan presided over by Julie and her businessman husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker), who occupy an immense apartment on Central Park West. And what an apartment it is: 14 rooms, five of which have been rendered in sumptuous detail on Santo Loquasto’s rotating set. Jokes abound about how you could get lost here. It is just as easy to become irretrievably smitten with the apartment, especially if you’re a young man from a less gilded background like Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a college friend of one of the Bascov boys, whom he’s visiting for the holidays.
Let me quote Jeff’s first impressions, delivered (with a perfect blend of awe and anxiety by Mr. Shamos) in a furtive phone call to his mother just before Christmas dinner: “You would love the apartment, mom — 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 and you look for New York, but it isn’t there? But it’s here.”
Of course, life chez Bascovs isn’t as seamlessly silken as it appears. This becomes apparent after the arrival of Ben’s neurotic sister, Faye (Judith Light); her rough-hewed husband, Morty (Mark Blum) and their lumpen grown-up daughter, Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). As the set revolves, we eavesdrop on different conversations — including between Jeff and his friend, the golden-boy Scotty Bascov (Jake Silbermann) — and hear about different forms of discontent and dishonesty.
Not from Julie, though. Played by Ms. Hecht with a lilting voice and a transfixing focus on whomever she’s speaking to, Julie seems to weave any hints of unpleasantness into a larger tapestry of life at its loveliest. “Lovely” is one Julie’s favorite words. And it is a testament to Ms. Hecht’s powers of enchantment than when she says “lovely,” it sounds full of rich promises. No wonder Jeff is a goner.
Though its characters speak in epigrams that bring to mind 1930s masters of drawing-room banter like Philip Barry andS.N. Behrman, “The Assembled Parties” also suggests those classic sentimental education novels in which young, middle-class outsiders are thrust into the exotic realms of an opulent but dying social order. Imagine “Brideshead Revisited”rewritten and relocated by the young Philip Roth (with assistance from F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger), and you’ll have a sense of the setup of “The Assembled Parties” (which surely deserves a more memorable title).
The play is also unmistakably the work of Mr. Greenberg, the author of “Three Days of Rain” and the Tony-winning “Take Me Out” and a specialist in wistful lyricism. “The Assembled Parties” displays the less desirable Greenbergian trait of biting off more than his play’s elegant mouths can chew, with a surfeit of mysterious back stories and intricate, dirty little secrets. Though every element connects thematically, more or less, the production feels overpadded with plot.
But like Julie, Mr. Greenberg speaks so spellbindingly that we tend to ignore those awkward moments. If nearly all his characters (except for poor, clunky Shelley) talk with a surreally heightened articulateness, they do so in ways specific to their characters. And Mr. Greenberg has provided them with particular, personal histories (which slyly and expertly calibrate social degrees of Jewishness) that are delivered in graceful, oblique fragments instead of the usual bulky stretches of exposition.
Like the dream ensemble of Jon Robin Baitz’s recent “Other Desert Cities,” the cast members here revel in having such delicious words to deliver, and they do the dialogue proud. Ms. Light, in a more manicured variation on the role she played in “Other Desert Cites,” again proves herself a first-class interpreter of the woeful but witty Jewish matron.
Mr. Walker and Mr. Blum, portraying mere men of the same generation, have less to say. But they embody the threats implicit in their combative masculinity without overdoing it. Mr. Silbermann is quietly affecting in the double role of the two Bascov sons. Mr. Shamos (“Clybourne Park”) never sounds a false note as either the enchanted Jeff of the first act or the disappointed man he becomes.
It’s impossible, though, to imagine “The Assembled Parties” without Ms. Hecht. You might not immediately think of her in this part, if you saw her on Broadway as the careworn women in recent revivals of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “A View From the Bridge.”
As Julie, though, she embodies all the fey, irresistible glamour that was missing from Emilia Clarke’s Holly Golightly in“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Mr. Greenberg’s other show on Broadway this season. As the daughter of an illustrious dress designer (whose vintage clothes, designed here by Jane Greenwood, she wears most fetchingly), Julie, who was a teenage movie actress, obviously has a different pedigree than the hillbilly Holly.
But as played by Ms. Hecht, Julie possesses an unworldly worldliness that Holly’s creator, Truman Capote, would have appreciated. Her gracious, willful whimsicality allows her to keep moving as if life were a lovely, lovely, dream even when all the evidence screams that the opposite is true.
I found myself thinking of Kitty Carlisle Hart, the actress and socialite, who might be considered spiritual kin to Julie. “I believe in denial,” Hart said in a 1993 interview with Marie Brenner in The New Yorker. “Denial is a marvelous thing.”
Why yes it is, at least when it’s applied in the high style that a Julie or a Kitty brings to it.