Richard Greenberg is a prolific playwright whose Take Me Out established him some years ago as a welcome new voice. That play about the locker room aspects of a baseball team and the coming out of one its major players won about every award going including the Tony as Best Play.
Since then, he’s given us a dozen more, but none that came close to having the impact of his prize winner. I’m familiar with The Razzle, his play about the eccentric Collyer Brothers who lived with a voracious appetite for collecting junk. Another, Three Days of Rain, served as a romantic comedy vehicle for Julia Roberts’ Broadway debut. It enjoyed a limited sellout run in the tradition of other movie star driven box office hits for plays of only moderate distinction. These plays were literate, but only moderately amusing or emotionally involving.
Others, like The Violet Hour, The American Plan, Everett Beekin, Hurrah at Last and the rest have been produced with no particular acclaim.
Mr. Greenberg returns to his upper middle class Jewish family background for The Assembled Parties. He has gathered nine family members on two Christmas Days, the first in 1980, the second twenty years later. This requires a great deal of exposition in the second act, letting us know what happened to this clan during the intermission.
Both occasions are set in the stunning fourteen room apartment of Matriarch Julie, married to wealthy lawyer Ben, where she reigns supreme as the force around whom the others live their lives. Julie is a former minor screen actress who reminded me of Fay Wray, who co-starred with King Kong in the 1930s film.
You have to listen very carefully, for, as the play begins, a close college friend of her son Scotty is a guest for the holiday, and the play opens with much talk, some of it confusing because a lot of it deals with people we haven’t met yet.
Ben’s brother-in-law Mort and his tornado of a wife (Faye) arrive with their little mouse of a daughter (Shelley) who is afraid of her own shadow. As played by the marvelous Judith Light, Faye is a magical monster who has a strong opinion about everything and her “Upper West Side Jewish Mother” character deserves a play of her own. Her husband Mort, nicely played by Mark Blum is a lesser light, and serves mostly to offer us what little plot there is when he blackmails Ben into doing him a favor, using some compromising Polaroid photos as weapons.
Are you confused? I certainly was, and when one of the actors in the second act turned out to be the same one who played his own younger brother in the first, well — that certainly gave us something to talk about on the way up the aisle and out of the theatre.
I don’t mean disrespect for Mr. Greenberg — but I do feel he failed in his obligation to write a play. What he’s offered us instead is a series of conversations involving members of a conventional family, in an unconventional and opulent setting. Santo Loquasto’s revolving set, which covers at least six of the fourteen rooms, is a remarkable achievement. It is all tastefully furnished and appointed, which is a comment in itself, in that the family that inhabits it is not revealed by it. Money was spent, a decorator was hired, and the result looks like a series of rooms displayed in the furniture department of a first class department store.
Beautifully mounted, perfectly cast, filled with colorful and descriptive language which is often very funny, I was left feeling I’d been a guest at two dinner parties at which I hadn’t learned a thing, so if, after reading this notice, you feel you haven’t a clue what The Assembled Parties was after, all I can say is: “Join the crowd.”
The Manhattan Theatre Club production of The Assembled Parties is onstage until June 2, 2013 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue) NYC. 10036. Details and tickets