Though theater owners love the bar receipts, intermission can be a terrible thing. Not just because of the bathroom lines and overloud kibitzers. Playwrights themselves seem to have turned against the traditional mid-play break, which cruelly interrupts the organic flow of stories designed, more and more, to take place in real time. But rarely has there been an intermission so cruel as the one between the acts of The Assembled Parties, Richard Greenberg’s excellent new play at the Manhattan Theater Club. During those fifteen minutes, twenty years pass, and the altered reality on which the curtain rises when the audience has resettled may hit you like a punch to the heart.
It’s not easy to explain why that’s the case without revealing too much. Suffice it to say that Act One takes place at Christmas 1980, when the imminent inauguration of Ronald Reagan seems, to the highly assimilated Upper West Side Jews arriving for dinner, like the worst thing that ever could happen. Act Two, jumping ahead to Christmas 2000, proves the earlier assumption to have been optimistic. The world is worse, and not just politically. Financial and existential disappointment — not to mention illness and death — entered the scene while you were busy checking your iPhone. Of course, such changes will hardly be surprising to hardheaded realists, who already know what the play is out to remind us: Time is a killer.
But there aren’t many hardheaded realists to be found in the envy-inducing fourteen-room apartment where The Assembled Parties assemble. Julie and Ben, at the start of the play, are a handsome and successful couple floating gracefully into middle age with their looks and assumptions intact. Their golden son Scotty has had an entirely becoming crisis of confidence on the verge of finishing college; his adorable 4-year-old brother is in bed in his jammies with the flu. The other regulars are Ben’s tart older sister, Faye; her thuggish husband, Mort; and their not-quite-right daughter, Shelley, who is happy with life as long as she gets her paycheck from Alexander’s each Thursday. Into this familiar ménage comes the necessary outsider, a friend of Scott’s who did finish college and is now marking time at Harvard Law. Jeff, hailing from a much less sophisticated family, immediately falls in love with the apartment, the dinner, and, most of all, Julie.
Though Act Two is the killer, Act One is more than a set-up; it does its own kind of damage. Still, it maintains a winking charm. “It’s like the sets of those plays you love,” Jeff brags about the milieu to his mother on the phone. “With the ‘breezy dialogue.’ They sort of talk that way and everybody’s unbelievably nice and, like, gracious and happy.” This is all insidious; and while we know more than he does, we don’t know much more. In any case, like him, we desperately want the illusion maintained. To this end, Santo Loquasto’s set helpfully revolves and revolves so we can see every inch of its good taste, Peter Kaczorowski plies his ambermost gels, and Jane Greenwood surpasses herself with Julie’s exquisite outfits. (Julie’s mother, we learn, was a couturier.) Still, something is wrong. Why is Faye so upset that she downs Julie’s Valium dry? (“Water isn’t necessary, water is a garnish.”) Why is Scotty’s face so “sparkly” and red? And who, deep in the recesses of the endless apartment, is screaming about rubies? It’s as if Greenberg had looked at the traditional Jewish family comedy and said, “Yes — but what else is going on here?” And amazingly, the terrible sadness of that “what else” just makes the comedy funnier.
But when the set stops revolving for Act Two, you may find yourself nostalgic for the complicated ambivalence of Act One. Now the glamor has worn off, and the rot suggested only metaphorically before has become the literal kind: leaks and blistering paint in an undermaintained rental. Julie, keeping up appearances, has prepared another feast, but even she seems to be aware that neither her cheerful nature (which she earlier called “an utterly ruthless thing”) nor “the holiness of shiny surfaces” is enough to sustain a person in the long run. “You always think the best of everyone,” Faye tells her. “It’s not useful, sweetie.” Ironically, the neurotic pessimist Faye — and, in a way, even obtuse Shelley — are the ones who survive with most of themselves intact, although even this victory turns out to be based on a lie. One of Greenberg’s points is that survivors are not role models. In fact, as Jeff has sadly learned by play’s end, no one is.
The Assembled Parties — despite that bland title — is Greenberg’s most richly emotional work in years, and the most beautifully detailed. (Please ignore his adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which closes on Sunday; in its confidence, The Assembled Parties is much more reminiscent of Take Me Out, from 2002.) And the director, Lynne Meadow, who is also MTC’s artistic director, has given it a top-drawer mounting. She seems to have taken a cue from Jessica Hecht’s heartbreaking Julie in keeping the pathos at bay as resolutely and as long as possible. When it finally insists itself — as it does, for instance, in a very quick gulp of regret handled with marvelous economy by Judith Light as Faye — it is much more painful than a weepy speech would have been. (Light mostly makes hilarious, even triumphant speeches — good practice for the Tonys.) Jeremy Shamos as Jeff is also spot-on, as is the rest of the cast, especially Lauren Blumenfeld, who gives poor Shelley a hilarious literalness that somehow amounts to its own kind of dignity.
Such characters — we all have them in our families, though we rarely see them onstage — are mysteries; what do they really understand? What does anyone? Perhaps Greenberg’s cleverest ploy is that he creates in the audience the yearning to know so much, but satisfies it only partially. Not only because some things—like what will happen to these characters by Christmas 2020, or even 2001—cannot be known. But also because, being human, we may be better off that way.
The Assembled Parties is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater through June 2.