It's fascinating to watch a play which leaps 20 years ahead in time at intermission, yet sets out to show what has not changed in all that time. Tony-winning playwright Richard Greenberg's new play The Assembled Parties, directed by Manhattan Theatre Club mastermind Lynne Meadow, is set up like a labyrinth. Indeed, the action takes place within the Boscov family's Central Park West apartment, which has 14 rooms and where, so the characters joke, it is very difficult to find the spare bathroom. In Act One, Santo Loquasto's set rotates to show different rooms and different conversations, some of which are happening simultaneously. This beautiful presentation of little bits of the family's 1980 Christmas gathering keeps the audience thinking, and contrasts with the awkward dinner that ends the act.
Act Two takes place in the same apartment on Christmas Day, 2000 but is limited to the spacious living room. Much of the dialogue is joyfully erudite and works well in this setting, especially as we glean what is really going on. For example, someone may be pregnant, or was, someone may be having an affair, and someone is tempermentally more suited to redoing the apartment than paying for it.
The characters who are present in both acts are Julie, the lady of the house (Jessica Hecht) and her sister-in-law, Faye (Judith Light) and a family friend, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). They are fabulously written and performed characters. Underneath the wonderful wig work (of Tom Watson) that denotes the passage of time, Julie and Faye's personalities remain beautifully opposite. Julie, a child star and daughter of a clothing designer, is a free spirit. Her teenage son, Scott (Jake Silberman) has his own problems but has brought as a guest his law school student friend Jeff, who becomes extremely close to Julie for the next 20 years. Faye is a more jaded, down-to-earth person who loves to slice people up with her wit. Their husbands Ben (Jonathan Walker) and Mort (Mark Blum) are on opposite sides of a dispute about an heirloom ruby necklace, something that will be cleared up during Act Two, when they are out of the picture. Scott's younger brother Tim (played by the youthful Alex Dreier and later by Jake Silberman) grows up learning how to lie about everything, while Faye's daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld) is learning to resent her mother.
Fast forward to 2000, another Jewish Christmas party. Scott, the good child, got AIDS from a blood transfusion. Accordingly, this is not a world where good behavior is the way to get ahead. Grown-up Tim is trying as hard as he can not to spend the day with his mother in the decaying apartment. Jeff, now a successful lawyer back from Chicago and responsible enough to know he needs to stop being a lawyer, declares it's not his place to tell Tim what to do.
Fortunately, he does. It's good people like Jeff and Faye--much richer thanks to a certain ruby necklace--who are supporting Julie while her health declines. Yet, all is not dark in the world. Julie puts on one of her mother's fashion dresses, and soon receives some news that's enough to brighten anyone's life.
Did I mention that the set is amazing? The rotating stage (something perfected in the Japanese theater during the Roaring 1700s) is an efficient way to show all sides of a family/society where people want and need to hide things. In a way, this concealment is an act of love, while the major reveals at the end make things as good as they can get. Jane Greenwood's delightful costumes range from Julie's glorious dress to the ruffles still on display in 1980.
Speaking of that, the little bits of nostalgia in the play are perfect. There is a "Y2K flashlight" in the corner, still in its plastic wrap. People are complaining about the election of George W. Bush, preparing to tune out the next few years, and even missing the other President Bush. There is a lot of complaining, really, but it's very funny. Just about every other line is so insightful that the action is interrupted by the audience's laughter. It's to the ensemble's credit that this 2 1/2 hour performance full of heightened language is as funny as it is. But if someone could see inside your family's holiday reunions, perhaps they would be laughing a little, too.