The intermission at “The Assembled Parties” takes 20 years. No, really: The first act begins and ends in a Manhattan apartment on Christmas Day in 1980, and the second opens in the same place on Christmas Day in 2000. It is the best time travel right now on Broadway.
The latest work by playwright Richard Greenberg is a beautiful and touching look at the inner workings of a well-to-do family, their mistakes and the stories that bind them.
The two-decade shift reveals that the things that bother us now intensely — that boil our blood or worry us — are often not the things we care about later. And that people we thought we knew are very different. Love and compassion seem to travel through time fine, however.
The Manhattan Theatre Club’s world premiere — starring a luminous Jessica Hecht and a super Judith Light — opened Wednesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, a few blocks from where Greenberg’s other Broadway work this season, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” sits like a lump. There’s no question which of his plays to see.
The two parts of “The Assembled Parties” can stand alone, but few patrons will not want to see what eventually happened to the folks in Act 1. Light and Hecht, who play sisters-in-law, are the spine of the show, and only a few of the other characters take the jump in time with them.
Lynne Meadow directs with superb skill, keeping the tension rising while allowing the actors all the room to show their gifts.
Hecht plays Julie, a former movie star with two beautiful kids who seems to have everything — riches, a great husband and skill in the kitchen. It is her 14-room apartment with rich inlays and expensive wooden furniture where both acts take place. Though all are Jews, Christmas is being celebrated with food and wine and tinsel.
Julie is a fascinating character: She’s a romantic, but not a pushover. She’s deeply emotional, intelligent and yearning, but not always willing to probe the darkness. With a breathy, calm and happy demeanor, Hecht is addictive to watch.
Her sister-in-law Faye is the opposite — a worrier, haunted by poor decisions and fearful of the future. When we first meet the two, Faye is in her mid-50s and menopausal. She begs her sister-in-law for some chemical relief.
“Give me a pill,” she asks.
“Oh — I’m sorry — damn it, I’m not depressed!” Julie says.
The dinner scene in 1980 reveals some drama that the two women are unaware of — Faye’s husband, Mort (a terrific Mark Blum), and Julie’s husband (a strong Jonathan Walker) have some unattractive business to attend to, which includes a mysterious ruby necklace.
Meanwhile, Julie’s oldest son, Scott (Jake Silbermann), is rethinking his life. Scott’s school friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos, superb as always) has been invited and is our guide, playing a stranger navigating long-practiced family rituals.
The first act’s several private conversations are made possible by Santo Loquasto’s nifty Lazy Susan set, with bedrooms turning to reveal the apartment’s entry way, which turns again to reveal a sitting room and then a dining room. A polite but tense dinner — as probably only the very rich can pull off — takes place.
Act 2 opens in 2000 with Julie, Faye and Jeff — now in many ways the family’s guardian — in a living room that takes up the whole stage and no longer moves. Julie and Faye have reversed roles in many ways, and the fate of the other characters is revealed, as are most of the loose threads from Act 1. Everyone has aged the same 20 years, but those two decades have done different things to each of them.
And though death is coming close for some, life has begun for others. There are few more poignant scenes than the play’s final one, in which wistfulness and hope collide, thanks to some superb acting and writing. It’s worth aging 20 years to see.
“The Assembled Parties” follows a Jewish family through two Christmas Day gatherings, where sparkly one-liners are lobbed like strands of tinsel.
Take when happy-go-lucky hostess Julie (Jessica Hecht) grouses about Bing Crosby constantly crooning “White Christmas.” “It’s like a tiny acoustic rape,” she howls.
Not to be one-upped when it comes to one-liners, her brazenly brittle sister-in-law, Faye, demands a Valium — with nothing to wash it down. “Water isn’t necessary,” Faye insists, “water is a garnish.”
The verbal volleys continue in Richard Greenberg’s warm-hearted but wispy group portrait of how families regroup, surprise and survive. It’s no fluke that his script begins and ends with the word “Yes.”
As in his “Three Days of Rain,” Greenberg’s latest work at Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by Lynne Meadow, leaps decades, reminding that time works in unpredictable ways.
In 1980, Julie, an ex-actress, and her husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker), who does something or other to afford their huge home, and their grown son Scotty (Jake Silberman) and 4-year-old Timmy (Alex Dreier) entertain guests.
That includes Faye, Ben’s sister, her husband, Mort (Mark Blum) and their clumsy 30-year-old daughter, Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). Also on hand: Scotty’s ingratiating college friend, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos).
The play’s first half is all exposition. Scenes move from one room to another in a mouthwateringly realistic revolving set by ace designer Santo Loquasto.
The Christmas setting seems arbitrary. Why not Easter? Or Passover? We do learn that a pregnant Faye married down and that an heirloom ruby necklace becomes a bitter bone of contention between Ben and Mort.
After intermission, the plot leaps leaps to Dec. 25, 2000. A fresh crop of challenges — financial, romantic, health-related — wreak havoc. At the same time, full disclosure of the ruby necklace reveals that a seeming act of hate can be an act of love. That’s one of the most pungent points by Greenberg.
He also presents the lead actresses with showcase characters. Julie is a tricky role — a woman who seems to live life in a cloud of ease. Stage vet Hecht’s airy, slow-talking take alternately fascinates and grates.
But Light, who won a Tony last year for “Other Desert Cities,” proves ever-invaluable as Faye, a smart-mouthed mensch with bark and bite. She’s the life of the party — and this production.
If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, you may see Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties” as warmly catering to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s audience.
If your glass is half-empty, you may think it’s pandering.
The gifted author of such well-crafted hits as “Take Me Out” and “The Violet Hour” — and the adapter of recent flop “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — Greenberg has set his new piece in a sprawling Upper West Side apartment. There an extended Jewish family gathers for two Christmas dinners, the first in 1980, the second in 2000.
The benevolent queen of this 14-room kingdom is Julie, a former teen-movie star played by Jessica Hecht (“A View From the Bridge”) like the second coming of Dianne Wiest. A welcoming host to Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a college pal of her son Scotty (Jake Silbermann), she graciously entertains him in the kitchen. Her tone languid and affected, she’s the picture of oblivious entitlement.
Julie’s sister-in-law Faye (a tartly funny Judith Light), visiting from Long Island for the holiday, is more old school — a pistol, in fact, ladling out babka, Yiddishisms and political opinions.
“Republican Jews, what is that?” Faye wonders aloud. “It’s like ‘skinny fat people.’ ”
The rest of the relatives don’t make much of an impression, even though they’re played by the excellent Mark Blum, Jonathan Walker and, in a hilarious Broadway debut, Lauren Blumenfeld as Faye’s dimwitted, nebbishy daughter, who works at Roosevelt Field. They’re introduced in shorthand, and disappear much the same way.
When Act 2 begins, 20 years later, Julie’s world has shrunk dramatically. Earlier, Lynne Meadow’s elegant staging lets us see the family holding simultaneous conversations in several rooms of Santo Loquasto’s revolving set. Now we’re stalled in the living room.
Key family members are gone, and Julie’s finances are shaky. Her younger son, Tim (Silbermann again), 24, rarely visits. At least Jeff, who’s made a mint as a lawyer, provides doting support and Faye’s sharp as ever.
Despite this tighter focus, “The Assembled Parties” bogs down in far-fetched tangents and revelations, as well as an unlikely story about a ruby necklace. It’s not even clear why Christmas means so much to this Jewish family.
Meanwhile, Greenberg neglects dramatic potential: Jeff’s romantic devotion to Julie, or the way her kindness can be manipulative. No wonder the show feels a little wobbly — it spends too much time resting on the family tree’s flimsiest limbs.
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 and S.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.
There was a time when every season had a play or even two by Richard Greenberg -- who won his 2003 Tony for "Take Me Out" and unfair notoriety when Julia Roberts made her 2006 Broadway debut in "Three Days of Rain."
Through the '90s and half of this century's first decade, we had so much of Greenberg's fast-talking, exquisitely eloquent New Yorkers and intelligent, chameleonic stories that the word "prolific," when attached to his name, began to sound more like a complaint than praise.
Forgive the ingratitude, please. "The Assembled Parties," his first new play here since 2006, has been lovingly directed by Lynne Meadow and cast with such experts of emotional nuance as Judith Light and Jessica Hecht. The tragicomedy, despite a few unexplained improbabilities, shocks us into realizing how hungry we have been for witty and wounded grown-ups who toss off gorgeously written observations without knowing how little we know about what we think we know.
Like so many of Greenberg's intimate social studies, this one is divided into two parts. It is first Christmas Day 1980, when the privileged secular-Jewish family and an awkward outsider (the gently powerful Jeremy Shamos) gather in the unending 14-room Upper West Side apartment (splendidly designed by Santo Loquasto). After intermission, it is Christmas 2000, and the revolving set is not all that has stopped spinning.
Light dances expertly on the edge of stereotype as Faye, the bitter (but still Yiddish-quipping) daughter of a dying Russian-Jewish immigrant mother. The favored brother (Jonathan Walker) has married an impossibly perfect ex-movie actress, Julie, a modest and happy woman played by Hecht with free-floating wisdom and increasingly poignant eccentricities.
Jake Silbermann plays their golden but secretive son, then reappears in the second act as his grownup, rootless younger brother. Girlfriends never appear onstage. Deaths come abruptly. A blackmail (involving a scary Mark Blum as Faye's disappointing husband) turns out surprising, as does their demeaned, mentally slow daughter (an excellent Lauren Blumenfeld). Most of all, lies are not just useful. They also can be kind.
Meanwhile, Greenberg, definitely back in New York theater, must see his adaptation of the irrelevant "Breakfast at Tiffany's" close Sunday, but the musical adaptation of "Far From Heaven," for which he wrote the book, opens next month. And for now, parties should be assembled for this vibrant, touching play.
In Act One of The Assembled Parties (* * * out of four), 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.
Whatever headaches Richard Greenberg might be having, what with this month’s closing of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on Broadway and next month’s opening of “Far from Heaven” at Playwrights Horizons, he can relax about “The Assembled Parties.” The Manhattan Theater Club, with a.d. Lynne Meadow at the helm, has done a sweet job on his messy but moving domestic comi-drama about a Jewish family living — and eating and arguing — over two decades in a 14-room rent-stabilized apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
A 14-room rent-stabilized apartment on Central Park West? In this real estate-obsessed town, that’s as good as a castle on the Hudson — better, because it’s closer to Zabar’s — and Santo Loquasto has designed this treasure with all the shabby beauty and comforting warmth it deserves. In lighting this womb, Peter Kaczorowski takes care to cast a few shadows in the corners of the many rooms that glide smoothly in and out of sight on a revolve, while sheathing key characters, like those played by divinities Jessica Hecht and Judith Light, in golden haloes. Costumer Jane Greenwood makes do with flattering period costumes, the kind with waistlines.
Julie is the hearth goddess in this play and as Hecht inhabits her, it is perfectly okay to worship at her feet. A former movie star, she’s still lovely and charming and downright embraceable, but also smart and funny and not afraid to say what she thinks — and means. “Touching, so touching, all of you,” she says, gushing about her son’s college graduation to a classmate of his who has come to spend Christmas. “So witty, so oblique, so over-educated, so utterly ignorant of absolutely everything.” (Her husband, Ben, is well observed by Jonathan Walker, but no mortal man could really deserve her.)
Julie is not only a wonderful character who repays the scribe’s obvious devotion, she also plays well with others, especially her outspoken sister-in-law, Faye. As Light attacks this nimble-minded, sharp-tongued neurotic — with wicked glee and pitiless honesty, delivered in the guise of a palace wit — she’s so perfect you’d think the part had been written for her. (Actually, it was.)
No wonder that a college friend of Scotty’s (Jake Silbermann), the young prince who lives in this castle, thinks he’s gone to heaven when he’s invited to spend Christmas in 1980 with this eccentric family. Jeff (the excellent Jeremy Shamos, playing on stages everywhere this season, and probably coming soon to one near you, too), is actually too sweet and innocent to be true, but come Act Two, he’s grown into that persona.
Since the family is Jewish, the physical trappings of this Christian-pagan holiday are discreet and mainly representational. But keep an eye on that tiny stump of a Christmas tree. When the scene is reset in Act Two for Christmas Day in 2000, it has grown to impressive height and somehow acquired an angel on top. The ironic comment is subtle but clear: the more this family falls apart, losing members, losing its religious beliefs and political foundations, sometimes even losing heart, the more they cling to old rituals like cooking holiday dinner and decorating the tree.
In broad terms, that’s pretty much what this bittersweet play is about — the loss of precious things over time and the struggle to hang on to what still matters. The family apartment, for sure, and the family bonds that all those old rituals and symbols represent.
As for the specifics … Well, it’s hard to discuss the specifics of plot and theme and event when the scribe doesn’t pay them much mind. Greenberg chooses to work almost exclusively with character, language, and ephemeral abstractions. And although his talky, static style has done him in in the past, this time he was lucky.
This time he bought his way out of the slipshod construction and baggy plotting with two great characters. Julie and Faye are natural enemies but too fond of one another to declare war. Their warm relationship is the heart of the play, just as the wonderful rapport between Hecht and Light is the heart of this production. And in this case, hearts trump clubs.