Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 17, 2013
The Assembled Parties by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music & sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. With Jessica Hecht, Judith Light, Jeremy Shamos, Mark Blum, Lauren Blumenfeld, Alex Dreier, Jake Silbermann, Jonathan Walker.
This is not to imply that Richard Greenberg's new play runs a full two decades, or even that it necessarily feels like it does (though the latter can be a close call). No, that's the span across which we encounter the Bascovs, they of the 14-room apartment on Central Park West, on an ongoing quest to better understand the vagaries of family, finance, and finagling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, grasping these concepts is even more difficult for the Manhattan well-to-do than for the average workaday folk who hustle for modest livings on the streets below.
Their battle to stay above average, by as many standards as possible, consumes everyone during the listless and frequently tedious first act, which is set on Christmas Day in 1980. Perhaps facing the most obviously imposing challenge is Julie (Jessica Hecht), the clan's approaching-middle-age centerpiece. Though a minor movie star in her teens, she's since turned her back on that career to pursue marriage and children with her inherited-wealthy husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker).
Not that things have worked out exactly as she'd intended in that department, either. Their college-age son, Scotty (Jake Silbermann), has a heritage of success to uphold, but he's adrift and undecided on his future. Everyone assumes politics, but he has neither the temperament for nor the interest in it; of late, he cares considerably more about hanging out with the activist girlfriend no one ever sees. Scotty's four-year-old brother, Timmy (Alex Dreier), has been receiving more attention of late for a sickness he just can't seem to shake.
Meanwhile, Ben's 80-something mother is dying in the hospital, and his always-rocky relationship with his brother-in-law Mort (Mark Blum), gets even rockier once the two start meeting behind closed doors after Mort arrives for the holiday dinner with Ben's older sister Faye (Judith Light) and their daughter Shelley (a barely used Lauren Blumenfeld). Sparks are guaranteed to eventually eruptforget family propriety, or the presence of Scotty's law school friend, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), who's joining them this year.
Greenberg becomes obsessed with each and every one of those sparks, so much so that he even rewinds time at a few points to let us see every possible perspective of every event that occurs simultaneously with every other. Director Lynne Meadow and set designer Santo Loquasto facilitate this through use of a constantly revolving set that quickly, if jarringly, inserts us into many of the myriad rooms in the Bascov manse, various lines of dialogue (heard through the apparently paper-thin walls) affixing for us the most vital whens and whats for those many moments that things are noticeably less than clear.
Though the aggregate effect is stronger than the one he devised in his other Broadway outing of the past month, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Greenberg's drilling does not delve much deeper into these people than he did Holly Golightly and crew. His most cogent creation is Faye, a constantly barking but dynamic "bitchy mother" archetype who is lovable in spite of her bizarre protestations. (Following a vituperative rant about Ronald Reagan, she sighs, utterly without irony, "I'm just grateful I'm apolitical.") Light plays her with relish, and has no trouble making her malcontentedness a joy.
Julie is more of a cipher, but Hecht plays her ably. Looking, as decked out in costume designer Jane Greenwood's faded-magnificence dress, like a woman who is out of sorts but shouldn't be, she projects an abiding, if never bitter, regret for what she's let herself evolve into. Hecht registers every impediment Julie has faced in holding together her life and family, as well as the resignation that her social and political standing did not leave her with many other paths to follow.
But with the exception of Shamos, who is as good as ever at playing the young go-getter with a not-so-obvious agenda, the performers are at most efficient, and because Greenberg has burdened his story with so many one-dimensional problems, uncertainties, and secrets, it's tough to see what, if anything, anyone's work should add up to.
He does, however, address all this, and more, in the more precise and powerful Act II. Set, yes, on Christmas 2000, it looks at what's become of most of the same people and where their decisions have led them. Mort and Ben are among those gone; Jeff is, against the odds, still around, with Julie, Faye, and Shelley (if only by phone) also among the stragglers. Who, if any, of these once-promising, now-fading people will see another Christmas is this act's prevailing mystery.
Far too much is made of another, an iffy subplot introduced off-handedly in the first act, neither the details nor the resolution of which are compelling enough to warrant the time (and a shockingly lengthy Faye monologue) devoted to them. But establishing these characters so painstakingly turns out not to have been completely wasted, as it creates a vivid collage of a once-sturdy family that must then confront desperate strife. The payoff doesn't quite justify the setup, but there's something genuinely moving about seeing how latent imperfections and insecurities, in them as in all of us, can reveal who people really are when needs arise.
Hecht, though previously quite good, becomes even more wrenchingly engaging as Julie faces her own mortality, and must cope with her strength becoming brittleness and her effusiveness working against her rather than for her. Light is sharper and funnier, too; Shamos's transformation into a middle-age power-player version of Jeff is highly amusing; and Silbermann, also present, is much better playing a legitimately lost young man, rather than one whose existence is spent lying to himself and others. Meadow's work likewise becomes more pointed and insightful when it focuses on just the living room rather than trying to wrangle a veritable estate onto the stage.
The Assembled Parties, then, ultimately becomes exactly what it promises, and blossoms into a well-rounded portrait of people struggling to locate their meaning and identities when so many around them couldn't care less. This is a frequent destination for Greenberg, and once he's reached it much of the journey proves to have been worth the unsteady trip. But no one quite convinces us it should take a full 20 years to arrive there.