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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 Uncategorized

 

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The Lyons – Review

The Lyons is an incredible one-act play conjoined to an impaired second act.  Linda Lavin is simply magnificent as Rita Lyons, a woman (literally) waiting for her husband Ben (Dick Latessa) to die.  Some of the most riotous sidesplitting moments come from the sparring between the two.  Mr. Latessa is wonderfully cast and plays Ben with such candor and sensitivity.  Rita’s dialogue is peppered with such bon mots one can only wonder of the ruin in lesser hands.  But under Mark Brokaw’s direction, Ms. Lavin’s interpretation is simply perfect.  When a play seems to have such perfectly timed humor it’s difficult to review.  If the summary is completely accurate, readers will have a skewed expectation that the reviewer did not have.  How then do you communicate the sophistication and spot on accuracy of the very funny dialogue, without potentially disappointing an audience?  Well, once the curtain rose in the dainty Cort Theatre for the second act, that particular conundrum ebbed.

While Ben and Rita’s adult children (Curtis and Lisa) appear in the hospital room in the first act, their parents are still there to do the heavy lifting.  Curtis (Michael Esper) and Lisa (Katie Jennings Grant) are ‘adult children’ in the truest sense.  They have victimized themselves to the point of utter infantile dysfunction.  (No doubt much will be said about this play (by Nicky Silver) being about a dysfunctional family.  I did not see any signs of a family not interacting effectively.  The adult children have ruined their lives but that does not make the family itself dysfunctional.)  The actors are solid interpreters of very dull characters.  Both “children” are on the other side of 30.  Curtis is incapable of ever having a romantic relationships; ever.  He’s also never supported himself, but that’s almost beside the point.  Lisa is an alcoholic with a self-destructive streak to beat the band.  She seems to have some sort of savior impulse that does not extend to her family and does not seem to have an organic root.  Damaged characters can be interesting, (Ms. Lavin’s previous gig in Other Desert Cities proves that.) These two people are not an example of that particular genre.  Drawing them the way Mr. Silver has, does evoke a response in the audience.  But as it is frowned upon to get up on stage and perform a duo of “snap out of it” smacks, there’s no outlet for the frustration.

The second act opens with a scene in an empty (for sale) apartment.  It is a long awkward scene (following an intensely paced and hysterical first act) that takes far too long to make a minor point, which could have been made off-stage.  According to the Playbill, there is normally a scene preceding this scene; depicting Lisa at Alcoholic Anonymous.  Omitting entire scenes seems a radical move during previews, but no doubt it’s been done before.  In its place (it seems) is a walk-on by dead Ben.  Never a fan of the dead returning for an encore, I found this very jarring.  The Lyons is a starkly realistic play and there’s really no room for ghosts.

It is comforting that the final scene takes place in the hospital room of the first act.  We are reminded of the promise of that first hour.  It must be said that The Lyons has a very satisfying ending.  Surrounded by a different audience I might have actually leapt to my feet and whooped.  The fact that the second act is (currently) in such disarray, should not stand in the way of seeing this play.  Simply to see Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa spar and jar is worth the trip.  It is safe to say that no one will ever play this role like Ms. Lavin does.  She is simply remarkable.  There are beautiful moments and resonating truths throughout the play.  Quite frankly, The Lyons is like most of us; it could use a little improvement.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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