Theatre Review: The Assembled Parties (Broadway)

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Note: This production is now closed.

This is an odd, slow-burn kind of play. Drama, in the edge-of-your-seat sense, is in short supply and much of what little there is takes place off stage, during intermission. It’s the kind of play that relies utterly on the chemistry between its actors, making each scene fascinating unto itself even as it gradually builds to a clear picture of just what, exactly, is going on. The dialogue has more to do with suggesting the details of these characters’ everyday lives than it does with moving any plot forward.

Which makes it a shame that some pairings just don’t have it. Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) and Scotty (Jake Silbermann) certainly don’t, making their rather lengthy first-act scene tedious at best. The set design in act one is fascinating, constantly rotating from room to room in the enormous Central Park West apartment that plays host to Christmas-slash-Hanukkah dinner, suggesting more energy and intrigue between plot points than there is. Jeff and Scotty, friends in college, talk about Scotty’s career aspirations versus the ones his parents expect him to have. Scotty’s mother Julie (Jessica Hecht) and father Ben (Jonathan Walker) prove to be kind, welcoming and unwittingly high-pressure. Ben finds himself blackmailed by brother-in-law Mort (Mark Blum), who does this behind the back of his wife Faye (Judith Light), both of whom railroad and endlessly criticize their awkward daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld).

The two best performers by far are Hecht and Light, and they have chemistry with everyone. Hecht in particular has the trickiest role, as her character is required to be utterly guileless, presenting the kind of sweet sincerity that would be overwhelmingly saccharine if not for its absolute genuine sincerity. Julie truly cannot see the bad in any scenario, and has intelligence and wit to say precisely what’s on her mind without being flakey. And speaking of over the top, if ever there was a Jewish mother replete with neuroses, guilt, self-deprecation and angst, Light is surely the prototype. She imbues this stock character with a specificity that makes it feel unique and individual, no matter how many times we’ve seen the act before.

Act one takes place in the 80s. Fast forward twenty years to another holiday feast for act two and all of life’s major changes seem to have occurred off stage. Mort, Ben, Shelley and Scotty are all out of the picture. Julie has been diagnosed with a condition of some sort, so long ago that nobody on stage refers to it specifically enough for the audience to figure out exactly what it is. This is a play that tries very hard to ignore details in favour of emotional, day-to-day realities. If the characters wouldn’t go out of their way to recap a scenario in real life, they’re certainly not about to for the audience’s sake.

And, coming back to the top of this review, that is why this is such an odd play. Is it funny? Absolutely. Is it touching? At many points, yes. But its commitment to “everyday” form of storytelling removes a tremendous amount of inherent drama. The audience is required to spend a great deal of time determining what blanks need filling, and then has to go about filling them, only to find that the details may not be all that interesting to begin with. Which is a lot like life, but most theatregoers buy their tickets to escape that kind of humdrum reality. Scenes live and die by how engrossing the characters are, and too often they simply aren’t. The brightest spots are Light, who absolutely earns her Best Actress Tony, and Hecht, who is so sweetly tragic it really is remarkable.

The Assembled Parties is a mixed bag of a play, but with more than enough material to chew on for après-theatre coffee and pie.

3.5 out of 5 awkward family dinners.

~Mike!

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