The playwright Richard Greenberg is a writer deserving of accolades. He has written over 25 plays, including hits like Take Me Out; beautiful scripts with lesser productions like Three Days of Rain; and the occasional flop like Breakfast at Tiffany’s which closed earlier this month. Happily, the praise bestowed on his new Broadway play, The Assembled Parties, has been nearly unanimous. But it felt unfinished to me, an amalgam of clever scenes and empathetic characters that had lost their way.
The Assembled Parties is a story about long-held secrets between family members, first in the early 80’s and later in the early aughts. Our attention is centered on the Bascovs, a refined, upper-class Manhattan family whom you would envy for their good looks and sprawling apartment if they weren’t so nice and welcoming. Julie Bascov, the beautiful mother played by Jessica Hecht, is a former actress who at 50-something hasn’t lost an ounce of youthful appeal. Her lilting voice and enunciated syllables suggest a well-bred upbringing, the same advantages she offers her two sons, Scotty and Timmy. We meet Julie before Christmas dinner, preparing crudités in the kitchen with Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a bright but nervous law student and friend of Scotty’s who is staying with the Bascovs for the holiday.
It’s important to mention that everyone we meet here is Jewish. And while religion itself isn’t central to the play, it’s noteworthy that Christmas is the backdrop for this family gathering. It speaks not just to Julie and her husband Ben’s secularism, but also to their Jewish ancestry. (More on that in a minute.) The Bascovs’ dinner guests are Ben’s sister Faye, her husband Mort, and daughter Shelley, who are distinctly more Jewish…or rather Jewy, which implies the stereotypes without the religiosity. Jeff’s family (whom we don’t meet) seems to be more observant and less well-off, the combination of which deepens his awe of the Bascovs. A phone conversation to Jeff’s parents indicates that they’re spending the night with Chinese food and a movie, the recognizable cliché of Jews at Christmastime.
These multiple shades of Jewishness provide much of the comedy in Act I. Whether or not you pick up on the cultural references, you can’t miss Shelley’s Brooklyn-inflected accent, or Faye’s Yiddish-infused speech, which Judith Light nails at every turn. Faye is the opposite of Julie: she is salted herring to Julie’s caviar.
As the guests arrive and the Bascovs prepare dinner, we see the stage rotate to reveal more and more rooms in their palatial apartment. Ultimately, we arrive at the dining room where our appetites have been whetted by the many mysteries that hide behind the comedy: infidelity between spouses, long-standing rivalries, a brazen girlfriend we only hear about, and a ruby necklace whose ownership is in question.
The focus amid the din is Julie, and it is testament to Greenberg’s writing and to Hecht’s performance that we fall in love with her so immediately. Jeff visibly does too, and when he jokes with Scotty and says, “I’m in love with your mom,” it’s done with deliberate bro humor to mask any signs of sincerity. It’s easy for us to feel as Jeff does – we’re enamored by the Bascovs even as we don’t know them.
When the curtain rises after intermission, it’s clear that Julie Bascov (now in her 70’s) has slowed down with time. The set no longer rotates, and Julie’s lightness has become slow with older age. (Hecht’s ability to change her entire demeanor, posture, and walk over a 15-minute intermission is remarkable.) Jeff, whose relationship with the Bascovs has been ongoing if sporadic, has returned for another Christmas dinner. He is more resigned to life, less enchanted by law, and still, it would appear, in love with Julie.
Because the mysteries of Act I hang in the air, every conversation in the second act seems to hint at their revelation. This is where the play falls short. The secrets are revealed, but they don’t affect the story. What we learn is interesting but not reality changing. This play is ultimately Julie’s story: how she encounters every setback and challenge with positivity and grace. But I wish it had been Jeff’s story: the outsider looking in for twenty years. How he has loved Julie all this time while she loves him as a son.
The bigger issue I had with the play is why Greenberg portrays a Jewish family at Christmas dinner, not once but twice. Jewishness circles the play like tinsel and ornaments around an evergreen, but Greenberg doesn’t elucidate an important point: that there are distinct differences between prosperous German Jews like Julie and shtetl-associative Jews like Faye. It’s not simply for laughs that Julie is personified by sophistication and Faye by neuroses. Perhaps Greenberg assumes the audience will pick up on the reference points, but I think most will miss them. To have this play be more than about Julie’s charm – a topic many critics singled out in their praise – we need to understand why her culture and history matter. Conjoined with Julie’s gracefulness is her denial of anything bad: how she waves off bad events, people she’s lost, and any trace of her real heritage. We love Julie but we can’t get close to her. It’s an interesting but unresolved idea that Greenberg leaves on our plates as the play ends. An hour later I was hungry again.