I attended a performance of Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties” a week ago, with my usual theater-going companion, who was the one who really wanted to see this one. The play presents us with the annual Christmas dinner gathering of a secular Jewish family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1980 (Act I) and 2000 (Act II).
Of course, there must be dysfunction and tensions for a play like this to be interesting, and Greenberg provides us with plenty of that. Those in attendance include the hosts, Julie and Ben, in their humongous big old apartment – so big that people get lost wandering about, a recurring and eventually tiresome joke – their son Scotty, Julie’s sister Faye, her husband Mort and their daughter Shelley (who is slightly retarded, or at least “slow”), and Scotty’s college friend Jeff, who is uncertain about his future. We also get a brief introduction to Timmy, the little kid brother who will be played by the actor portraying Scotty in the 20-years-later second act, Scotty having died tragically young in the interim. The spoon that stirs the brew here is Faye, who is given to outrageous observations calculated to provoke barbed responses.
This play seems to me more about characters than plot, and the characters are interesting enough to hold one’s attention, although I found the second act much more engaging and involving than the first. First acts in plays are saddled with the heavy burden of exposition and introduction of characters, which can get tiresome, while second acts feature the pay-offs for all that investment in learning who these people are from the first act – enough to care about what happens to them twenty years later.
So, Judith Light got a great gift from Greenberg because Faye has the best lines and gets to steal every scene she is in, but the rest of the cast is fine. I felt an interesting connection with each of them. This was certainly worth attending, although I was doubtful about the strongly positive reviews it got, since I think the script is a bit loose at times. Ultimately, most of the praise is merited. Director Lynne Meadow moves the cast around well in this typically accomplished Manhattan Theatre Club production at the very comfortable Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.