Standing on the outskirts of this privileged, cultured, rich-but-not-too-rich family in their spacious 14-room apartment on Central Park West, looking in, an outsider slowly becomes privy to all of the secrets – some sweet, some seedy – that they’ve been hiding from one another in Richard Greenberg’s latest, The Assembled Parties. It’s a sprawling family drama, and a love letter to a way of life now gone – if indeed it ever existed.
Some people just seem to lead a charmed life. Case in point is Julie (Jessica Hecht), a witty, whimsical, warm matron and former movie star who presides over her family’s lovely apartment (did I mention it has 14 rooms?), shared by her husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) and post-college-age son Scotty (Jake Silbermann), who’s surely destined for the Presidency as soon as he settles down. At least that’s how it appears to Scotty’s friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), visiting for Christmas in 1980 from his own decidedly less aspirational home. Even the pater familias’s sharp-edged sister Faye (a delightfully acerbic Judith Light), with her not-so-gentrified husband Mort (the excellent Mark Blum) and oafish daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), seems to soften in the warmth of Julie’s urbanely benevolent hospitality. It’s not until 20 years later, through the still-besotted eyes of Jeff, who’s become the family guardian angel, that we start to find out what underpinnings still hold that lovely family illusion in place. Some of them are indeed sordid secrets, but some are acts of pure generosity and kindness, all conspiring to maintain Julie in her magical cocoon.
Directed with grace and energy by Lynne Meadow, The Assembled Parties takes a long and loving look at this family, which for Jeff emblematizes the good life in New York, as its individual members follow out their ambitions and aspirations during a tumultuous 20 years. As both witness and family friend, Jeff tries to take on the additional role of secret savior, only to discover that he may be too late. But the play is also, almost too self-consciously, about how unsustainable almost everything that makes this family enviable – their money, their promise, even their sprawling apartment – ultimately is. What turns out to be strongest is the fragility it was designed to protect: Julie, with all her easy erudition, good taste, and charm – and her core of ruthless clarity.
Though the play starts slowly, it’s packed with intrigue, and if every plot line doesn’t tie together as neatly as one might wish, nonetheless the plot holds together well enough to satisfy, and the smart, articulate banter for which Greenberg is justly famed is a pleasure to hear. What’s more, the whole is set against a revolving set that displays multiple rooms (though not all 14) of this lovely apartment to such graceful effect that we’re all left in the position of Jeff – wishing we could live there and eat Julie’s gourmet cuisine and listen to her drolleries.
Relishing each of Greenberg’s clever, well-wrought lines, Hecht is in her element as Julie. While her delivery can feel a trifle mannered at times, her lightness and gaiety are as engaging as her clear-sightedness – about, say, her son’s talents – is surprising yet convincing. Light, however, almost steals the show as her smart, shrewd, terminally exasperated sister-in-law, alternately decrying contemporary politics (though she thanks God she’s not political) and pushing (evidently against her better instincts) to get her schlumpy daughter married. And in his less spectacular role, Shamos is fine as the outsider who spends – and arguably wastes – his own life first aspiring to this family and then trying to save it from itself and the inexorable ravages of time.