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The Assembled Parties – Review

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Anyone who has even suffered the slightest twinge of real estate envy should stay away from the Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Assembled Parties. The play, set in a lavish 14-room apartment on Central Park West (designed by Santo Loquasto) would make even the 1% pea green with envy. This imperfect play by Richard Greenberg takes place in two discreet times periods; 1980 and 2000, on the same day. At times the two acts even feel like two discreet plays. This is not a unique theatrical phenomenon and can work, but it’s a terrific hurdle to clear. Recently, the device was used in Clybourne Park and there wouldn’t have been a play without it. The key to its effectiveness is to create two acts, or time periods of equal force.

The first act is a rapid and rotating collage of a family assembled on Christmas. Christmas could easily be replaced by Thanksgiving or Passover for this Jewish family, as it’s just an excuse to gather and overeat. The curtain rises on Julie (Jessica Hecht) in the kitchen (the size of most living rooms) with her eldest son’s friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). Jeff is young and socially out of his league in the presence of the glamorous (former movie actress) Julie. She speaks in a cadence not usually found in nature and is dressed in a jumpsuit created by her mother (a renowned designer.) Julie teases Jeff with obvious affection and Jeff seems on the edge of pinching himself throughout. He is a first-semester Harvard Law student, the son of first generation Jews and he’s spending Christmas at the captain’s table. Julie’s husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) appears and we learn of another (much younger) son who is upstairs with a cold. The set then starts its rotation and the apartment and the family dynamics unfold. We meet Julie and Jeff’s two sons; Scott (Jake Silberman) and Timmy (Alex Dreier). Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light) arrives with her husband Mort (Mark Blum) and her lumpish daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). Director Lynne Meadow has the women characters use pronounced accents & Ms. Blumenfeld’s is beyond enjoyable. Shelley grew up (and stayed) in Roslyn, an unambitious and perhaps intellectually challenged 30-year-old single woman. Her blank face and very low center of gravity is a wonderful counter to the rapid fire speech and movement of her extended family. And the first act does move. Just when we’ve learned something new, the set rotates once again and more story unfolds. Faye is not happy, in that; “I miss Miltown” way. Ms. Light (as we saw in Other Desert Cities) is superb at portraying complicated women entirely at ease with their shortcomings. She is splendid and is given an embarrassment of riches of one-liners with which to work. You could create a fabulous twitter feed out of her zingers (both English and Yiddish) and pronouncements. This is not to suggest that her performance relies upon these quips. Not at all. But one does wonder if Mr. Greenberg wrote these gems with Ms. Light in mind.

That niggling little thought got in my way during the sedate second act. The curtain opens to a non-rotating large living room set that bares no resemblance to the fist set. We spend several moments wondering if the family (what little there is left of it) has moved. The husbands have died and Scotty (who looked a bit flush in the first act) died in 1981. Ms. Light delivers the line that informs us that Scotty died from AIDS; from a blood transfusion in a New York City hospital in 1981. Now it’s possible that if we combed medical records from 1981, this might have actually happened; but it probably would never have ever been identified as such. Scotty had just spent time overseas and could have easily been killed off by a myriad of diseases. That this implausible death was created and spoke of by Ms. Light (a longtime AIDS activist with a famed association with Ryan White) was distracting. There are other distracting theatrical devices that unfold in the second act which weaken the impact of what should be a moving play. One definite asset to the second act is Mr. Silberman; ill at ease as Scotty in the first act he flourishes as grown-up Timmy.

It’s clear in the first act that the character of Timmy is a device. His little boy self, ensconced in Star Wars sheets is ignored by his parents (on Christmas) and his existence is never explained (it’s not customary to have two children 20 years apart.) Yet the other characters or so wonderfully and fully formed. Mr. Greenberg captures the subtleties of middle-class New York Jews so perfectly and to utter delight. There are cultural conflicts and tensions beautifully and delicately rendered. None of these illuminations are delivered in a “The More You Know” public service announcement, but as real and integral dialogue.

There is much to love about The Assembled Parties. The performances alone are worth the very fast 2 1/2 hours.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in Theatre

 

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We Live Here – Review

We Live Here, by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia,) and directed by Sam Gold is in previews at The Manhattan Theatre Club.  Set in a beautifully designed (John Lee Beatty) New England home on the eve of a wedding celebration, family secrets and raw anguish are revealed.

The play opens with the mother (an almost unrecognizable Amy Irving) opening her daughter Ali’s wedding gifts.  To save her the trouble.  A brittle, insecure, youngest daughter Dinah (Betty Gilpin, daughter of Jack Gilpin) arrives to almost zero acknowledgment by her mother.  Supposedly, mommy is simply overwhelmed by the details of the small family wedding.  The bride Ali (Jessica Collins) arrives with her fiance Sandy (Jeremy Shamos) whom the parents suspect is gay.  He enters carrying lilacs.  There is a marked tension and dislike between the sisters, who are 11 years apart.  Daddy (Mark Blum) beloved peacemaker and Greek philosopher, rounds out the family.

While still in the throws of awkward family reunion and meeting the fiance, young Dinah’s older boyfriend Daniel (Oscar Isaac) arrives.  He is not exactly every parent’s ideal.  Daniel is faculty at Julliard, where Dinah studies piano.  He is also the ex-boyfriend of Ali’s deceased twin sister.  Small town, that New York City, eh?  This stretch of realism in the plot is barely noticeable however.  There are much more gaping distractions on hand.

The first act is definitely the stronger of the two, but the script could use (more?) time in workshop.  While there are exquisitely crafted moments (due in large part to the brilliance of Mr. Gold) and very believable dynamics, there are equal amounts of misses.  There are very lofty writing aspirations at play (pun intended.)  Bobbing and weaving around the mythology of Adromeda, is not interesting.  It should either of been fleshed out or dropped as a theme.  (My vote is for “dropped” as it’s an odd device in a play about identical twins.) The backdrop of the wedding, while utilitarian, is flawed in its execution.  This is a family of New England intellectuals preparing for a small wedding.  They would not be engaged in (last minute) handwritten, place cards, (last minute) dress fittings, (last minute) slide shows.  Slide shows?  The fiance is a Guggenheim winning portrait artist.  Slide shows also don’t particularly jive with the mother (last minute) selecting which flowers (from their own garden) they will use for the wedding.  All of these silly incongruities would not be so distracting if it weren’t for the fact that they are a warning.  The number one rule for any writer (particularly one in their 20s) is “go with what you know.”  Throughout the play, we have the distinct feeling that the playwright is only in passing acquaintance with her characters.

Dinah’s anorexia is considered “cured” yet, her bridesmaid dress (purchased very recently) no longer fits.  She also does not eat.  Yet, she talks about her “recovery” in a very (unintentionally) fictionalized manner.  It’s very hard to believe much about her, when her most defining characteristic is unconvincing.  Is she or isn’t she?  It’s not that she doesn’t know, it’s that the playwright never decided.  We believe she would want to be invisible and therefore develop anorexia, but the psychosocial accuracy is missing.

We discover that Althea’s twin sister Adromeda killed herself (it was implied earlier) after Ali slept with Daniel (back in high school.)  The means not entirely justifying the ends for you?  Well, it seems that Andromeda had stopped taking her Lithium and had been locked in the piano room for days, and her parents chose this exact time to leave all the girls alone for the weekend.  Still not convinced?  Well, it seems the family KNEW she had stopped taking her Lithium, but were pleased she was writing music again, particularly in time for the college application process.  Okay, maybe they are crazy enough to have a slide show at a small family wedding.

To think that I had thought it irresponsible to send a daughter off to Julliard in the throws of an eating disorder.

A flashback is used to tell us Daniel and Ali slept together.  It wasn’t needed, but it did add a wonderful haunting element; having the relentless piano playing of Andi (behind closed doors.)  The flashback device is used as the transition for a tipsy Ali and Daniel getting on his motorcycle together.  The inevitable accident occurs.  Ali is only banged up, but (very briefly) noted is that the cellist Daniel, has seriously damaged his hand.  The moments after Ali is brought home from the hospital are almost unbearably sad.  The writing and acting of the parents is simply excruciating.  My heart just broke for them and their pain.  Sobbing and sniffling, I thought “yes!, go with what you know!”  Clearly Ms. Kazan, has a true gift, demonstrated by those real, raw moments on the stage.  What she and the play need(ed) was some serious work-shopping, and a merciless editor.  Why does the fiance travel (on the eve of his wedding!) with his easel and paints?  Why are gifts being sent to the parents when the couple already lives together?

The ending to this play with real potential, was very disappointing.  Sandy leaves Ali.  Maybe.  Why?  Because she slept with her sister’s boyfriend in high school?  Because she rode on a motorcycle with him?  It’s not clear.  Why is the last scene, the sisters snuggling together promising to be there for each other forever?  We never find out why they had such a distant relationship.  We never find out why the family treats Dinah’s musical gifts (Julliard!) as a whim.  As we wait on the edge of our seats for these illuminations, the play actually ends with the line; “Look the sun is rising.”  Sigh.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Theatre

 

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