By: David Sheward
"It’s like the sets of those plays you love with the breezy dialogue," says Jeff, an earnest young man describing the elegant and cavernous Upper West Side apartment belonging to the parents of his school friend Scotty, in The Assembled Parties, Richard Greenberg’s sweet but ultimately uneven new play on the yearning for familial connection.
Jeff, who is visiting for Christmas in 1980 and on the phone to his mother, is attempting to capture the enchantment the apartment and its inhabitants, the Boscovs, have for him. The playwright is also self-consciously referencing a style of theater-long gone even in 1980-where patrician characters exchange scintillating quips over martinis. Greenberg, like Jeff, longs for that kind of world and mourns its passing in this play, as he has in others such as The American Plan and The Violet Hour, which were also presented by Manhattan Theatre Club.
The main source of Jeff’s idolization is Scotty’s graceful mother Julie, a former film star who seems to effortlessly glide through life, thanks in part to her wealthy husband, Ben. Her biggest disappointment is charismatic Scotty’s noncommittal attitude toward his future, but even that doesn’t upset her too much. Not so lucky is Ben’s sister Faye, saddled with an unhappy marriage to the brutish Mort and a terrible relationship with her intellectually challenged daughter Shelley. As the clan gathers for the yuletide feast while Scotty’s little brother Timmy is in bed with the flu, additional strands of plot involving blackmail, prostitution, and intrigue between Ben and Mort are revealed. After intermission, we jump ahead 20 years to Christmas 2000, and seeds planted in the first act bear fruit. Jeff, now a corporate lawyer, has assumed the role of family caretaker, Julie and Faye are widows, Scotty has died (apparently of AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion), and the grown-up Timmy has a pregnant girlfriend. Despite financial troubles, the survivors resolve to live together in the huge apartment as ends are tied up a bit too neatly.
Greenberg delivers numerous dazzlingly funny bits of dialogue ("Republican Jews? What is that-It’s like skinny fat people," complains Faye), but there are an equal number of stilted lines. The multiple plots, especially one involving a mysterious piece of jewelry, and the arched references come across as pretentious and contrived. The author touches on the characters’ conflicted sense of identity and their attitudes toward their Jewishness but fails to develop this theme. The question of their celebrating Christmas rather than Hanukah is never quite addressed. Jeff, the emotional core of the play, is underdeveloped. Other than the one phone call to his mother, we find out very little about him. Does he really have nothing else going on in his life other than the tribulations of a school chum’s family?
Greenberg is primarily interested in his leading ladies, Julie and Faye, and fortunately, they are brought to warm, vital life by reliable veterans Jessica Hecht and Judith Light respectively. Hecht manages to make Julie’s obliviousness endearing, and Light expertly delivers Faye’s numerous wisecracks. Jeremy Shamos endows Jeff with reams of subtext the playwright fails to provide and almost succeeds in getting us to care about him. Lauren Blumenfeld gives the dim Shelley a welcome nasty bite. Jonathan Walker and the excellent Mark Blum are largely wasted in the roles of Ben and Mort. Jake Silberman does differentiate his dual roles of Scotty and Tim, and strongly peruses the latter’s objective-hiding his girlfriend from his family.
The production, directed with a sure and loving hand by MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow, is gorgeously realized by set designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Jane Greenwood. Meadow skillfully paces and blocks the family on Loquasto’s set, which revolves in Act 1 and remains stationary in Act 2. Sensitively lit by Peter Kaczorowski, the world of the play is indeed seductively beautiful, suggesting a society based on faded but alluring chic. But when a stage apartment is more interesting than the people in it, that’s a problem.
April 17 – June 2 2013
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $67-120. (800) 432-7250
Photos: Joan Marcus
Originally Published on April 18, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com
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