“I brought consommé!” the hostess says brightly as she enters the room. Never mind that the room is dimly lit, plagued by leaks and almost empty of people. Every course of this gourmet meal served by this hostess, in tasteful, antique china, will be thoroughly enjoyed.
It’s hard to argue with a hostess like this, especially when she is played by the superb Jessica Hecht in The Assembled Parties, the new comedy-drama by Richard Greenberg currently in performances at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Narrating the decline of a wealthy agnostic Jewish family, The Assembled Parties is the epitome of taste and class, even when addressing such ugly topics as AIDS, crime and death.
We first meet the Bascovs on Christmas of 1980. Living in an opulent 14-room apartment in Manhattan, Julie (Jessica Hecht) and her businessman husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) are hosting Christmas dinner for their son Scotty (Jake Silbermann, in a solid performance) and his friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), who is visiting from law school. Also joining them for dinner are Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light,) her husband Morty (Mark Blum) and their socially awkward daughter Shelley (an endearing Lauren Blumenfeld).
Jeff is immediately smitten with the everyone in the apartment as well as the apartment itself, excitedly telling his mother on the phone, “It’s like you go to New York and you look for New York, but it isn’t there? But it’s here.” But all is not as it seems and appearances are quite deceiving in this palatial Upper West Side spread; as Santo Loquasto’s set revolves from room to room the audience is introduced to some of the darker secrets that exist within this family. Ben’s business deals are not on the up and up, Faye suffers an addiction to numerous tranquilizers, Scotty is depressingly apathetic about his future, despite his parents’ plans for him to be the next President, and he is also suffering doubts about his relationship with his girlfriend, even though his parents fear that he night “whimsically elope for lack of a conflicting appointment” (one of my favorite lines of the play.)
That line, as well as numerous others that rang in my memory long after the play ended, is delivered by Hecht, who, as Julie, personifies the image of the moneyed, palatial and destructively self-deceiving hostess who keeps a smile determinedly plastered on her face even when commenting on someone, saying, “he’s the most wretched man who ever drew breath.” A teenage movie star who left the silver screen for her husband, Julie speaks gently, in a lilting voice, and is spellbinding to watch out of pure fascination of what she might utter next. While consoling her depressed sister-in-law, played by Light, the following exchange was delivered in all sincerity:
“You’re a happy woman, aren’t you?”
“I’m so sorry!”
As for Ms. Light, I want her to be in attendance at all of my holiday meals and family get-togethers. As the salty, acid-tongued Jewish matron, she is beyond entertaining in The Assembled Parties, offering both sarcasm and humanity, bluster and compassion, in one package complete with sensible shoes. Her realism provides a sharp contrast to Julie’s optimism, and her determination for compassion outweighs all of her attempts to act like she doesn’t care about her family. Greenberg penned some delicious one-liners for her and she delivers them with zest and delight. (Another favorite was the sad lament, “No one feels imperiled on a bodily level any more.”)
It is the dialogue that really drives The Assembled Parties, which takes many of its cues from various drawing-room comedies and dramas. Greenberg has penned some truly eloquent and witty dialogue that drives a script that is rather physically stagnant. This in itself is both a blessing and a curse; while I found myself thinking, “No one really talks like that!” I also found myself lamenting, “No one really talks like that.” While watching Shamos, who gives a truly developed, excellent performance as the quiet, soft-spoken Jeff, talk on the phone with his parents attempting to describe his excitement, I rejoiced in the lack of “like” and, “You know?” in his dialogue.)
The revolving set comes to a halt in Act Two, which takes place on Christmas in 2000, and much else has come to a halt as well. Numerous family members are no longer there, and those who are are not well-off. Jeff is a lawyer disappointed by the profession, unmarried and alone. Julie suffers from an unnamed illness and Faye, who has sobered up, is aging rapidly. Julie’s younger son Tim is estranged from his mother and living with his girlfriend after failing to complete college. This holiday is not very merry and bright.
But these characters persevere and before the curtain falls even more secrets are revealed and perhaps even some hope for these people and their woes. After all, as Julie says of Christmas, “Other than Bing Crosby and all the dying, it’s a lovely season.”