Generations of Jewish guilt intermingle in Richard Greenberg’s latest play, The Assembled Parties, now receiving its world premiere on Broadway as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s season. Greenberg has been busy this spring — his adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s opened on Broadway in March, followed by this play in April, and the New York premiere of his new musical version of the film Far From Heaven (written with Grey Gardens‘s Michael Korie and Scott Frankel), which is upcoming at Playwrights Horizons in June.
If there’s anything the former two productions share, it’s a certain slapdash, unfinished quality that leaves an audience wanting more. Thankfully, The Assembled Parties, an original play, unlike Tiffany’s, possesses more overall charm, an abundance of sharp, well-observed dialogue, and two smashing lead performances from Judith Light and Jessica Hecht, who make mincemeat of most of their scene partners and are this production’s must-see participants.
The play, which depicts an Upper West Side Jewish family on two Christmases — one in 1980, the other in 2000 — is about family secrets and resentments, ambition, and disappointment. Julie Bascov (Jessica Hecht), a former movie actress, has settled down with her husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) and had two kids, popular jock Scotty (Jake Silbermann) and much-younger Timmy (Alex Dreier); the couple is hosting the rest of the family for a sort of all-purpose secular Christmas celebration, with Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light), her husband Mort (Mark Blum), and their socially awkward daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld) as the guests of honor. Also in attendance is Scotty’s pal from school, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), who’s quickly attracted by the follies and hubbub of this sophisticated family, which seems a far cry from his own simple origins.
Though there’s plenty of familial spirit at work in the Bascovs’ fourteen-room apartment (it’s a running gag that no one can ever find their way around), there are darker motives as well. Mort, in an attempt to gain possession of a ruby necklace, a Bascov family heirloom, attempts to blackmail Ben, whom he’s caught in compromising photos with a woman who is distinctly not his wife. Ben, under duress from his brother-in-law, takes off to the hospital to visit his dying mother, whom he hopes to use as a pawn in his plot to have her (fictitiously) sign off on the necklace’s peaceable transfer. Much of the first act is spent on exposition; it’s a slow burn, but thanks to Hecht and Light, there’s plenty of crackle along the way.
By the play’s second act, the family dynamics have shifted considerably. Many of the men have died off; Julie and Faye are the central figures of their latest Christmas celebration, along with Jeff. Julie’s son Tim stops by but tries to weasel his way out of dinner, claiming that, as a waiter, he’s got to work for a private party. Favorite son Scotty is out of the picture, as are husbands Ben and Mort, leaving, mysteriously, Jeff, as the controller of Julie’s finances. Motifs set up in the first act, like the ruby necklace, are revisited, but Greenberg, sadly, fails at making many of these expositional payoffs really land. There are plot holes galore here as well, and unnecessary characters. Not much effort is made to explain Jeff’s continued involvement in the family, other than his tentative connection to Scotty. And the characters of Timmy (at least his young incarnation) and Shelley do little to advance the plot (their excision would shave a good fifteen minutes from the running time and a nice chunk off the production’s salary as well). Other threads are left dangling — the issue here being that, rather than leaving elements intriguingly unresolved, there are more unanswered questions than not, leaving an audience to wonder (rightfully or not) whether the playwright himself has even worked out the answers.
What we’re left with is a production that feels more like a first draft than a satisfying play; an audience’s experience in the theatre is likely to be enlivened by Hecht and Light, whose transformations as Jewish matriarchs over twenty years are masterful and nuanced, but once my companion and I began parsing the play’s plot points over post-play desserts, its threads started to come unraveled. It’s no disaster by any means, and with Greenberg’s sparkling dialogue there’s much here to keep an audience laughing and engaged. Though the play represents an intriguing, even beautiful, jigsaw puzzle, however, there’s a degree of payoff that the author seems content to leave unmined; a few of its pieces are missing.