Long one of the most Jewish neighborhoods in New York, the Upper West Side is often said to have lost much of its ethnic Jewish flavor.
For the Bascov family in Richard Greenberg’s new play, “The Assembled Parties,” which gathers each year for an elaborate Christmas Dinner in its14-room Central Park West apartment, Jewishness is the last thing its members are thinking about. But as long-buried secrets threaten to overwhelm their carefully preserved upper-class lifestyle, is their forsaken Jewish identity a symptom of a larger crisis of self-deception?
The adroitly acted, urbane but ultimately unsatisfying play, directed by Lynne Meadow for the Manhattan Theater Club, suggests as much. It shows the same family at two Yuletide dinners 20 years apart — first in 1980 and then in 2001. At the Reagan-era dinner, the mother, Julie (Jessica Hecht) and her husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker) welcomes the family of her sister-in-law, Faye (Judith Light), who arrives with husband, Mort (Mark Blum), and emotionally challenged daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld) in tow.
But occupying most of her attention is a houseguest, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), her son’s best friend from college, who is swept away by Julie’s beauty, sophistication and ease. As rivalries and animosities between the two families bubble up to the surface, especially surrounding a ruby necklace bequeathed by Ben and Faye’s mother, the family’s veneer of wealth and respectability seems ever more like an elaborate façade. In the second act, as the situation becomes ever more precarious, it falls to Jeff to decide how much he will be able to pick up the pieces.
Greenberg, who has had 10 previous plays on Broadway, has written some of his best dialogue yet for “The Assembled Parties” — the play’s language sparkles with wit and vivacity. Julie has many of the play’s most memorable lines, as she precisely and lovingly describes each painstakingly prepared Christmas repast. Who can fail to be captivated by lilting, wonderful lines like, “You coat the potatoes in semolina, then fry them in the drippings — it’s medieval, there should be vassals and broadswords and a maypole…”
Yet her character, whose European accent is not explained until almost the end of the play, is woefully undeveloped. Julie is so steeled, in psychological terms, against any real emotion, as she sails above the paltry concerns of the everyday, that she is simply not credible. Only in the play’s final scenes does she briefly allow herself to show grief over the loss of her mother, whose skill at making voluminous dresses seems to have been passed on to a daughter who is equally adept at concealment of all kinds; but what trauma she is hiding, and why, remains an enigma.
This theme of hiddenness is picked up brilliantly by Santo Loquasto’s revolving set, which brings rooms into view even as it manifestly thrusts others — often with the actors shown still in place from previous scenes — into the recesses of the stage. This helps to create the illusion of the huge, sprawling apartment, in which characters constantly complain of getting lost, as a place where what you see is almost never what you get.
A greater pity, then, that the play does so little with this promising theme. What gives the play the little oomph it has is the brilliant performance of Judith Light. Her Faye recalls both Linda Lavin and Joan Rivers; in her refreshing Jewish-accented, no-nonsense but hugely amusing style, she manages to be both fearless and vulnerable, world-wearied and wry, caring and confrontational. “What is all this goyishe chazerei?” she demands when she spies the Nutcracker soldiers, wreaths and other holiday decorations. And later, when asked about her joyless marriage, she brings down the house in explaining, acidly, and with only a trace of self-pity, that “it’s not a Tevye/Golde thing…‘Do you love me?’” and implores, “let’s not insist on love.”
While in many ways the female characters dominate the piece, there are also a couple of brief but absorbing scenes in which men come to the fore; in one, the vaguely gangsterish brother-in-law, Mort, blackmails Ben to gain ownership of the necklace, and in another, the two college friends talk about their futures. (There’s also an amusing scene in which Jeff talks on the phone to his mother about his friend’s high-class lifestyle.) But none of this goes very far, or draws the audience more deeply into the characters’ emotional lives.
A good comparison with “The Assembled Parties” could be made with Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” which also starred Judith Light. It’s a play about a rich, partly Jewish Republican couple in Palm Beach that is forced to confront their daughter’s tell-all memoir about how the unspeakable things they did to climb to the top.
A play about the downfall of the high and mighty needs a series of stunning revelations in order to fascinate and move its viewers. “The Assembled Parties” hinges on nothing more than a single string of rubies, which the playwright casts like pearls before an audience that is looking for more than merely scintillating dialogue and surface sparkle.
“The Assembled Parties” runs through June 16 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $67-$137, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.