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The Assembled Parties

"I thought of one other thing I like and, yes, I think this will round out the toast or prayer or whatever this is nicely. I like very much the word "amen." Does everybody know what that means? It means: I am in agreement. Isn't that a lovely thought? There are times I want to say amen to everybody-- the doormen and the greengrocer and even to Ben. So I would love it if we would all just say it now because I feel its the case here among us all."
— Julie
The Assembled Parties
Jessica Hecht and Judith Light
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Yippee! A new play from Richard Greenberg, instead of an adaptation of someone else's work (adaptation of Truman Capote's short-lived Breakfast at Tiffany's and the libretto for the musical version of the Todd Haymes film Far From Heaven soon opening at Playwrights Horizon). And Yippee again, The Assembled Parties represents Greenberg at his funniest and most moving.

That's not to say that this is a great play with great themes or topical issues jumping out at you. That's why end of season awards will more likely go to the key players (Jessica Hecht, Judith Light and Jeremy Shamos) than the play. And yet Greenberg's fans (and I count myself as one of many) will recognize how The Assembled Parties, like all Greenberg's top work, merges witty dialogue that at times smacks of stand-up comedy with intensely emotional scenes to get beneath each key character's initial facade.

The Assembled Parties also falls within a genre that's something of a Greenberg creation, drawing room tragedy. That doesn't mean he abandons the more traditional drawing room comedy What he does is stuff the first act with so many laugh lines that you're apt to feel as if you're at a revival of one of Neil Simon's zinger-a-minute comedies. In the second act, however, things get considerably darker. Ghd shift in moods ixn'g limited to the drawing room environment; case in point, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning Take Me Out'.

Greenberg plays, the current one included, also tend to explore time changes and their effect on various familiar connections. In the very fine Three be Days of Rain the present day characters we meet in the first act flash back to their parents' youth, with the children actually metamorphosing into those characters. The under appreciated The Dazzle, flashes back to the characters' happier days while The Violet Hour> jumps forward to a futuristic setting.

While The Assembled Parties also takes place in different eras, the time shift is more straightforward, moving chronologically from a Christmas 1980 first act to another Christmas twenty years later. That means each coincides with the beginning of a new administration. And that timing is what makes Greenberg such a subtle playwright.

The big changes about to take place as each act begins hint at a certain topicality, but Greenberg's story telling remains within the narrow, framework of an annual family gathering. Yet, the universal and profound themes implied by the dates during which the play unfolds do reveal themselves through their impact on this one small group of people.

The family at the heart of The Assembled Parties are East European Jews who have prospered in America so that Ben Bascov (Jonathan Walker) and his wife Julie (Jessica Hecht) can afford to live in a house-sized Centtral Park West apartment. Their son Scotty (Jake Silbermann) is a Harvard undergrauate which his parents hope will lead to a dazzling future. Ben's older sister Faye (Judith Light) and her husband Mort (Mark Blum) live in Roslyn, one of Long Island's upper middle class suburbs. Unlike Julie and Ben, they're not exactly a love match, nor does their daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld) give them reason to "kvell.

While the Bascovs are, like the characters in my least favorite Greenberg play, Everitt Bekin, rags to riches Jews, their story is a far more nuanced, engaging and memorable probing of time and familial connections. There's even a mystery, shades of but quite different from the superb Three Days of Rain. It pertains to a ruby necklace and the story of that necklace, adds an intriguing O.Henry-like touch to the plot development.

Good as the script is, it's impossible to overstate the impact of Lynne Meadow's dynamic and handsome staging and the performances of Jessica Hecht, Judith Light and Jeremy Shamos. Hecht, who I've admired despite having at times found a bit shrill, brings an endearing ethereal charm to the role of the gentle Julie who loves what seems like a charmed life — a husband who adores her, plenty of money, a huge apartment in one of Manhattan's most elite neighborhood. She's old to be considered a mature beauty but still young enough to have an adorable 5-year old son. She loves to cook and doesn't miss her brief career as a movie actress. No wonder Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), Scotty's friend from Harvard is totally smitten with her.

Hecht's Julie is the play's most loving, lovable and heart-tugging character. But Judith Light as her sister-in-law Faye gets to play the counterpart of Take Me Out's Mason Marzac. She's not only the play's funniest and most entertaining character, but turns out to be more likeable than indicated by her initial kvetching.

While the plot pivots around Hecht and Light, Jeremy Shamos gives a terrifically understated performance as the invited outsider who ends up playing a major role in the Bascovs' lives.

There are some fine brief performances from actors in smaller roles. Lauren Blumenfeld who's making an auspicious Broadway debut stands out as Faye and Mort's difficult (but amusing) daughter Shelley.

Before the actors assemble for the act one festivities, scenic designer Santo Loquasto projects an exterior view of the apartment house, a rather plain looking high rise which looks to be at the corner of the 93rd Street entrance to Central Park. His rotating set to the various rooms of the 15th floor apartment adds mightily to the flavor of a family living in a Manhattan version of the "golden medina." In the second act the warren of rooms expands into a single set and becomes part of the plot complications.

Clearly, it's no exaggeration to say that Loquasto's set is very much another star player. Jane Greenwood's costumes, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and Obadiah's Eaves' original music and sound design also deserve a round of applause.

Finally, though The Assembled Parties is peppered with Jewish references, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy and appreciate it.

The Assembled Parties by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Cast: Jessica Hecht (Julie), Judith Light (Faye),Jeremy Shamos (Jeff),Mark Blum (Mort),Lauren Blumenfeld (Shelley),Alex Dreier (Timmy), Jonathan Walker (Ben), Jake Silbermann ((Scott/Tim),Gabriel Sloyer (Voice of Hector).
Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Original Music and Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson
Stage Manager: Kelly Beaulieu
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, includes one 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Theater Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street
From 3/21/13; opening 4/17/13; closing 6/16/13.
Tuesday and Sunday @7pm, Thursday - Saturday @8pm, Saturday and Sunday @2pm.
Tickets $67 to $120.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 12th press preview
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