By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Well, no wonder Judith Light won the Tony for Best Featured Actress. The only question is why Jessica Hecht, co-star of The Assembled Parties, didn’t win, too.
Catching up belatedly with Richard Greenberg’s moving and entertaining play (the production has been extended yet again), I found myself all teary by the end. Because I never read reviews in advance of a play I plan to write about, this weeping surprised me since I’m neither a big crier nor partial to family drama. But Greenberg has the knack of creating richly understood characters who have interesting things to say and interesting language to say them with. These people’s conversation is peppered with words like “ambrosial” and “ignominious” and “disingenuous.” And although The Assembled Parties is unlike Greenberg’s best known drama, Take Me Out—a play about manhood and baseball and racism and homophobia—it shares with that earlier play a refusal to wait around for us to get it; Greenberg assumes the audience is smart enough to keep up. He also assumes we’re grown-up enough to get its hard, funny truths: “A cheerful nature is a ruthless thing,” as one character tells us. Lynne Meadow’s vigorous direction keeps the tempo both cheerful and ruthless, never bogging down in schmaltziness.
The two acts are separated by twenty years, 1980 and 2000. Rich secular New York Jews celebrate Christmas dinner in a fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West (stunning set by Santo Loquasto); some of the family’s history happens before our eyes and some in the intervening decades.
Our hostess, Julie (Hecht) whose mannered rhythmic speaking style and haute cuisine cooking make her a puzzling quantity until we get to know her; by Act Two, it’s as though she’s family. Her relationship with her eye-mopping sister-in-law Faye (Light, looking old and matronly and like nothing you’ve seen of her glamour on television) is the heart of the play. Two intelligent, generous-spirited and intuitive women, weather all kinds of tsurous from their “inordinately feckless” children and manipulative husbands. Agonizing over never-to-be-forgotten-or-forgiven resentments, Faye wittily, sadly observes about her own mother, “The sense of neglect is the last to go.”
Our guide through these complex relationships and complicated pasts is middle-class Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a law student at Harvard and friend of Scotty (Jake Silbermann), the scion of this family who is expected to have a “dazzling future,” perhaps the first Jewish president. Jeff grows up to be both steadfast and honest, steadying the drama down, asking the questions we need the answers to, temperamentally disinclined to the high intensity of the family.
The script is enriched by gorgeous monologues; especially fine is Faye’s as she tells the wonderful story about a ruby necklace, and another is Julie’s recalling the genius of her mother’s sewing: haute couture clothes to make anyone look “voluptuous” (the superb costumes were designed by Jane Greenwood). That Julie is wearing one of the magnificent vintage dresses as she talks (how does she manage to look both ethereal and voluptuous simultaneously?) gives the play’s conclusion a poignancy that refuses every temptation to sentimentality but misses no occasion to move us.
At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W 47th Street, NY
Through July 28. Tickets: $67-137 Telecharge: 1-800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com