The title of Richard Greenberg’s new play, The Assembled Parties (Friedman Theatre), carries multiple meanings. Its “parties” are a pair of Christmas dinners, occurring 20 years apart, and also the oddly assorted individuals who gather for them—members of a single family (plus one outsider) but oddly assorted nonetheless.
Though they are indeed assembled on Christmas, the Bascovs and their in-laws, the Rapoports, are Jews, one generation removed from the shtetl, and not particularly big on Christmas spirit. Julie Bascov (Jessica Hecht), whose cooking and passion for domesticity hold the clan together, calls Christmas “a lovely, lovely season” except for Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”—”a tiny acoustic rape every time you leave the apartment.”
The apartment, a sprawling 14-room epic on Central Park West, is where these celebrants collect, hosted by Julie and her husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker), an affluent practitioner of some unspecified business. Ben’s sister, Faye (Judith Light), and her husband, Morty (Mark Blum), a prosperous “fruiterer,” brave the holiday traffic from Long Island to be there. The two occasions we see, occurring in 1980 and 2000, seem as strangely perfunctory as the family connections. A tree is decorated, apathetically; presents are a rarity; Yiddish words are flung about, especially by Faye and Ben. Dinner, constantly postponed, seems almost an afterthought. The event that Christmas commemorates is only referred to once, when someone trying to get a repairman to fix a leaky pipe offers to pay a “Nativity surcharge.”
The random quality emanates from Julie. A former teen movie star, daughter of a noted dress designer, she loves her home and family, but in a distinctively drifting, disconnected way; Ben describes her approach to life as “aleatory.” Hecht’s captivatingly eerie vocal style, which turns every line into a sort of sustained croon, perfectly embodies the driftiness.
Julie enchants everyone; her charm both stabilizes the family and keeps it off-kilter. A German Jew, she’s a shining alien to this far earthier band of outer-borough Galitzianers, with their half-sordid recollections of “the neighborhood.” Though their talk, like hers is elegantly phrased, these urbanites one step up from the mean streets reveal a blunt hard-headedness under their high-gloss Greenbergian lacquer.
Something (again unspecified) turns out to be seriously wrong with both Ben’s health and his business. What’s ailing him may stem partly from having to work out a shady deal with Morty—whose fruit business may also not be entirely legit. Faye, a walking anthology of neuroses, turns out to be both the keeper of the family conscience and a financial wizard by instinct. Like the good urban-Jewish liberal that she is, she uses her talent to benefit others. Light, equally adept at conveying Faye’s unhappiness and at zinging the knifelike sarcasms that mask it, brings the role a multifaceted shimmer.
Greenberg’s older generation, distant from their parents’ old-country mores, haven’t exactly acquired new ones. And their children seem still more dislocated, with only vague recollections of their own ethnic heritage, and an even vaguer sense of America’s; they’ve grown up uncertain and identityless. Even Ben and Julie’s closest relatives constantly get lost in their vast apartment, which designer Santo Loquasto presents as a rolling maze of rooms that never seem to connect. Not irrelevantly, Faye recalls an immigrant relative who described America as a “bewilderness.”
One of Faye’s quips, at a stressful moment, sounds like an immigrant malapropism that’s gotten an educational upgrade. Arguing on the phone with her recalcitrant, socially impossible daughter, Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), she says, “To err is parenthood.” The rue in this clever play on a familiar quotation comes from a sense of slippage. The cleverness of Faye’s generation, so eager to assimilate and make good, has somehow eluded their kids. Shelley, asked what she wants to be, has no ambitions. Ben and Julie’s elder son, Scott (Jake Silbermann), pressed by them to study law, would rather teach. Scott’s much younger brother Tim (Silbermann again), Act Two reveals, is entirely rudderless.
Only the family’s on-and-off houseguest, Scott’s college pal, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), achieves something in the parental eyes: Unlike Scott, he becomes a lawyer, though the money and success he attains only reaffirm his feeling that those cherished American goals aren’t really important. In Act Two, with the party’s numbers diminished and the apartment in disrepair, the future looks bleak. But everybody’s love for irrepressible Julie, plus a few surprises, provide an improbable and tearful note of hope.
As eccentric as it is cunning, Greenberg’s densely packed script sends your mind spinning while you laugh. Lynne Meadow’s production nicely catches its unnerving tone: Everything seems sweetly cozy, yet isn’t. In addition to the glittering glories of Hecht and Light, Walker and Blum do excellently, while Shames shows sheer mastery in a role made up largely of concealed feelings. Diffidence has rarely provided an audience with such enthrallingly readable hidden agendas.
Clifford Odets, the classic New York Jewish writer of an earlier era, spent years in Hollywood, battling a studio system largely created by first-generation Jews. He exacted a little revenge on the moguls with his 1949 melodrama The Big Knife (American Airlines Theatre). Its twisty but tightly built plot narrates the crushing of handsome superstar Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) between the antithetical demands of his highly principled wife (Marin Ireland) and a malignant, hit-hungry studio head (Richard Kind).
Odets’s language, like his story, is ornately branched but always on target: His characters play for big stakes, with big, brightly colored phrases to match. Part of the fun is the running unspoken dialogue that Odets carries on with movieland’s production code censors. The play contains nearly everything American films weren’t allowed to show: unpunished adultery, unpunished murder, abortion, suicide. With efficient ingenuity, Odets makes the perpetrators feel guilty as hell about almost all of it, supplying clues for the tailoring that would make even this anti-Hollywood work purchasable by the studios.
On The Big Knife‘s way back to Broadway, however, it apparently collided with some new mode of censoriousness. Doug Hughes’s production pushes for a muted, muttered realism that squeezes Odets’s garishly tropical diction into bland, pasty mush. The intimate tone promotes frequent inaudibility; even the normally superb Brenda Wehle spreads a weirdly inapposite glumness as a sharp-fanged gossip columnist. Cannavale, usually an exhilarating presence, seems glum too, vocally and emotionally hemmed in; he and Ireland strike no sparks off each other. Only when Kind ramps up his ranting, goading Chip Zien, as Castle’s loyal agent, into furious response, do we get the wild clangor of Odets in full cry, a brash, percussive music that should have resounded all through.