Review of the Wednesday, May 22 evening performance at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Starring Jessica Hecht, Judith Light, Jeremy Shamos, Jake Silbermann. A new play by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Lynne Meadow. 2 hours 35 minutes including one intermission. Closes July 7.
It has been just over a week since I saw The Assembled Parties, the Tony nominated play by Richard Greenberg. And the play still sticks in my mind. I find myself thinking of my funny, quirky relatives, family members long dead, and even my relationship with my sister. In short, I keep finding myself drifting back to moments in the play and then imposing my life on it. In its review of the same show, The New York Times wrote that they just don't write plays like this anymore. And it is true. It is a work of quiet moments, of intricate, complex relationships, of regrets and self-delusion. There are no fancy bells and whistles, no extreme staging. What there is, though, is some dazzling acting in a smart, funny play that requires its audience to give it their full attention.
Greenberg's play concerns a well-to-do Jewish family in New York City in 1980 and 2000. The first act is a fast-paced series of scenes that reveal the relationships between all of the characters and how they keep each other at arms length, though each one of them would swear they were a close family. Director Lynne Meadow keeps things moving with a constantly spinning apartment set, brilliantly designed by Santo Loquasto, with each scene actually happening nearly simultaneously. The playwright, along with the direction and set movement, reveal this timeline slyly, with a simple line - calling the family together for holiday dinner - repeated frequently. The result is a surprisingly taut and even intense act which finds the "close family" at odds and spread throughout the expansive Upper West Side apartment. It is only in the final moments of the act that all of the parties assemble. The meal is tense - on the surface, a typical holiday meal for many a family. The difference here is that we are privy to the real causes of the familial tension, far beyond the nagging, nit-picking and petty arguments that take up the final moments of the last scene. Nowhere is the effect of this typical/atypical dynamic more clear than in the actions and responses of the lone guest at the dinner. The curtain falls as the meal begins.
|The Assembled Parties Company|
Act two is just as intense - there is much more at stake 20 years later - even as the action stops almost completely. Now we see the same apartment - entryway and hall, living room and dining room beyond. Instead of seeing one room at a time, we now see one large portion of the apartment and nothing more. Now, the survivors of the family come together two decades later for another holiday meal. The matriarchs are older and they see the finish line of life much clearer and closer than some 20 years ago. Husbands are gone, children are lost, either by death or by poor life choices. And that house guest is now as much a part of the family as anyone related by blood. These people are together not out of obligation, but out of necessity. The remaining parties have reassembled because they must depend upon each other now as never before. Not much happens, action-wise, but what Greenberg is saying about family is profound in the larger sense, and deeply personal on the individual level. One needn't be wealthy, Jewish or from the city to relate to this play (I am none of those things, yet I find myself connecting these characters to my own family.)
On the surface of it, none of the characters who don't make it to act two make much of an impression. They are, it seems, little more than plot devices and mechanisms for the story that happens between acts. But it is to all of their credit that the actors still manage to do just that. As the elder husband is played with a pointed grumpiness by veteran actor Mark Blum, while his daughter, an awkward wall flower, is played with an almost embarrassing realness by Lauren Blumenfeld. The younger husband, a fake, touchy-feely guy who hides his displeasure with his life very poorly, is played by an uncomfortably edgy Jonathan Walker. In a brief scene in act one, young Alex Dreier is an adorable younger brother, ailing that night and loving the attention his illness brings him. (His character appears in act two as an adult.) As I said, all four make an impression, even as the playwright makes sure their impact, while everlasting in the bigger picture, is almost non-existent in terms of the play's real time moments.
|Jake Silbermann and Jessica Hecht|
The quartet at the heart of the play offer four of the year's most compelling performances. None of the four are as flashy as other roles in the plays this season, but that actually makes the detail and "realness" each actor brings to the stage all the more remarkable. Most famous as a soap actor from As the World Turns, Jake Silbermann makes an excellent Broadway debut in his dual roles - the idealized, smart college aged son in act one, the equally brilliant, but personally and socially awkward younger brother, (played in act one by Alex Dreier) now 20 years older in act two. This latter role is much larger, and much trickier. In a play that relies on the spoken word, a lesser actor would stick out like a sore thumb. Instead, Silberman makes this character's awkwardness and lack of good decision-making skills a part of his physicality, while his smarts and educated brilliance comes flowing out of his mouth with an ease usually reserved for the most verbose of characters - his vocabulary is enormous and intriguing, as is watching this sad young man navigate a familial minefield. Silbermann's overall air of weariness tells us wordlessly that the guy he's playing has been through this all too often - the lesser sibling living under the impossible shadow of a lost and beloved older brother.
As the friend who is witness to the family's intrigue in act one, and who is inextricably interwoven into it in act two, Jeremy Shamos is riveting to watch. Between his career-defining role last season in Clybourne Park, and this low-key, but viscerally intriguing character, Shamos is quickly proving himself to be one of his generation's most watchable and skilled stage actors. In a role that requires him to actually be an awkward shlub of a best friend to Mr. Perfect, he navigates act one with an edge that makes him someone you want to watch, even if in real life you'd never befriend him. Act two is even more complicated, giving the actor the task of maintaining that awkwardness, not because it is expected, but because it is so, while we must also believe that his relationship with family and family matters has evolved naturally. Shamos also more than holds his own in several scenes where it is just him and the two actresses giving two of the season's most exciting performances.
|Shamos, Hecht and Light: The Bascov Family circa 1980|
|Shamos, Hecht and Light: The Bascov Family circa 2000|
The vastly, regularly underrated Jessica Hecht is the compelling matriarch of the family, a former actress who lives her life with an outward naivete and ethereal cadence to her voice, and an inner strength and savvy that makes her character both interesting watch and commanding to listen to. Act two finds her character at a crossroads in many ways - some she is aware of, others of which she is blissfully unaware. Of course, we are aware of it all, and watching Ms. Hecht march triumphantly at all costs through life in act one, and angelically above it all in act two is both a joy to watch and tragic to contemplate. In a season full of great performances by a variety of actresses, it is truly a shame that she has been overlooked this awards season.
For the third season in a row, the magical Judith Light has taken the New York stage by storm. It would be easy to dismiss this role as little more than a variation/combination of her two previous roles. And you could even make the case that she has been so lauded for this role because she has the best, funniest lines. But let's be real here. Ms. Light is an amazing actress with dramatic depth and comic timing that is nearly unparalleled by anyone of her generation. Comedy, any actor will tell you, is very difficult to play, and this role requires a woman of a certain age to come in with the force of a lightning bolt, all while containing it in a wounded, self-pitying bottle. It is true that every time she takes the stage in this play that the energy level in the whole theatre threatens to blow the roof off the place, but that has as much to do with the character she's playing as the actress herself. Light's task is not a small one: we must believe that her character believes that all of her woes, self-imposed or not, are real, just as much as we must believe that way down deep the woman she's playing knows her life isn't all that bad, either. Such simultaneous duplicity is challenging at best, and Ms. Light rises to the occasion brilliantly. Her act two monologue - one that will surely become an audition staple - is a bravura performance all by itself. I won't be surprised or disappointed if/when she wins her second Tony in as many years.
A play about marginally annoying people that requires you to listen and think even as it happens may not be everyone's bag. But when a play gets richer in your mind a week after seeing it, you have to take notice and give it its due. A rare thing, indeed; they just don't write them like this anymore.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)