Jessica Hecht and Judith Light descend the staircase to the lower lobby of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a fit of laughter, looking as luminous in person as they do in Richard Greenberg's The Assembled Parties. Hecht is in the midst of recounting a story from earlier that afternoon, voicing all of the characters herself. It takes place on a New York City bus. They say the bus is their transportation method of choice, the opportunity to watch the world go by.
In the drama, now running through July 7, they costar as sisters-in-law Julie (Hecht), a glamorous former Hollywood "it girl," and Faye (Light), a woman tormented by her neuroses. With such a familiar rapport, you would think these stage veterans would have known each other for generations. Really, this Manhattan Theatre Club production, directed by Lynne Meadow, is their first professional and personal experience together. In reality just as in the play, their camaraderie has clearly affected their lives in very important ways.
Prior to a recent performance (and when Hecht was finished with her uproarious bus story — which involved a spilled cup of coffee), we chatted with the pair about their work on stage and off. Excerpts from the conversation follow.
These roles seem so personal for the two of you. How did your involvement in the production come about?
Jessica Hecht: We did a reading of it together, a little over a year ago.
Judith Light: April 16 . I know, because that is the date my dad died. That's how I just happened to remember it. And then we did another reading in December. Was that all we did?
JH: It was three readings in total, because we can remember all of the people [who] played Jeff. It was Daniel Gold, Hamish [Linklater], and Jeremy [Shamos] did the one reading that was…
JL: …in December. That's right.
JH: The thing about the play is the chemistry of the characters. No matter how many times you read it, if you're not having the right chemistry, of the three of us particularly, it would be a different dynamic. It's one thing to read opposite somebody and really admire them, but there's another thing to read opposite somebody and someone says, "Oh, you have such amazing chemistry." You don't usually feel that; it's something someone else feels.
JL: It happened for me immediately. I was kind of stunned; we had this hundreds-of-past-lifetimes sort of connection — a sister relationship that was very potent, and I think they felt it, too. What's interesting is that Rich [Greenberg] wrote this with both of us in mind. I think he had some sense of it, and our genius, brilliant, wonderful [director] Lynne Meadow had a sense of it, too. And I just don't know what it would be for me without Jess. My Faye is off of Jess's Julie...And we had never worked together before. I had just seen her work and admired it.
That was going to be my next question! Your chemistry on stage is like you've known each other for years and years. And that you know the characters deep down, too.
JL: We have friends in common. We have people that we know, that we love, dear friends. So when I said that we were doing this together, they said "Oh my God, we love her." And that's true for anyone I told that to!
JH: That's the same thing people say to me, endlessly. Someone sent me a long email about the significance of [Judith] in their lives.
JH: Yeah. For us, the story also had tremendous resonance just because of our bloodlines…
JL: ...and our own history. We're both Jewish women, from not necessarily completely traditional Jewish families, so we understand that in relationship to each other.
Like Greenberg's earlier play Three Days of Rain, this one includes a jump in time, a period of twenty years in between acts. How much did you discuss about what happened to the characters between the first and second half?
JH: We didn't talk about it at all, really. We just talked about the realities of aging twenty years. Like if your voice gets deeper or physically, the level of decline. But Lynne is [now] the age of my character, she's in the realm of that, and her voice is the same. For me, with what's going on with me physically, I just thought of people who are unwell and how they move. We actually talked mostly about not laboring it in any way. That it should be very small.
JL: If I think about my mother, her voice didn't change through her life. She was 87.
JH: Maybe at 87 you slow down a drop, but between 44 and 64, there is no difference.
JL: And I go from 53 to 73. The one thing we did talk about is that we wanted to make sure that we weren't doing that thing where we both — there's a Yiddish word, "krechtsing," — like she's getting up [groaning] because she's ill, and I'm getting up [groaning] because I'm a little bit slower, but we needed to make sure that we weren't wound down like these two dolls. That could get really old and really boring fast.
JL: There are very big things that happen [in the second act]...There was text originally that was edited a bit that allowed us to have some real emotional experiences. So we did that text, and it afforded me a weight and understanding of what somebody might feel, and then we let it go. It was kind of a unique way to do it.
JL: That can only happen when you're working with a living playwright. Jess has worked with Rich before. You have that availability, and you have Lynne, who's so close to Rich. She had a deep understanding of it, and that made a huge difference. Having Rich being able to be there, and being able to do that dialogue and some of the stuff that was cut, it still lives in our body…The important thing about our characters is that we've survived those tragedies. As we worked on it, it came out to us and Lynne that the surviving leaves scars, but also a strength and resilience. But we're not in those tragedies still. We've survived them.
I know I wasn't prepared for the turn the second act takes.
JL: What's interesting to watch with these people is that they're heroic because of the fact that they never sink into indulging themselves in the depth of despair about what has happened. Lynne would always say "Get yourselves out of the lugubrious pit." It's always interesting to watch people work to survive, not to watch them wallow in their sorrows.
JH: There's a certain spirituality to the play. Rich isn't religious at all, but he says you're from this blood line. There's a spirituality that's innate and everyone can connect to that in some amazing way.