Jeremy Shamos, Jessica Hecht, and Judith Light in <i>The Assembled Parties</i>
Jeremy Shamos, Jessica Hecht, and Judith Light in The Assembled Parties
(© Joan Marcus)
If Neil Simon had somehow mated with A.R. Gurney, would they have produced Richard Greenberg? This odd question raced through my mind at Greenberg's often hilarious, bittersweet new play, The Assembled Parties, now receiving a first-class Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

As in many of Gurney's works, The Assembled Parties looks at the dynamic of one family in two different time periods. We first meet Ben and Julie Bascov (Jonathan Walker and Jessica Hecht) getting ready for Christmas dinner in their palatial Central Park West apartment (designed with utmost cleverness by Santo Loquasto). A former teen movie actress, Julie is entertaining and inadvertently seducing Jeff (Jeremy Shamos, excellent as always), the slightly naïve best friend of her handsome college-aged son, Scotty (Jake Silbermann). Meanwhile, Ben appears on edge as he awaits the arrival of unhappy older sister, Faye (Judith Light), her nebbishy, hard-bitten husband, Morty (Mark Blum), and their simple-minded grown daughter, Shelley (the very funny Lauren Blumenfeld).

One is constantly aware that much of what happens in the first hour will reverberate in the show's second half, set exactly 20 years later. Forthcoming happenings range from Morty's insistence (through underhanded means) in gaining back his mother-in-law's ruby necklace to hints that Scotty has a serious illness. Fortunately, the plot's slightly creaky mechanics take a back seat to Greenberg's dazzling array of quips and one-liners, which may remind theatergoers of Simon's.

In addition, as in such Simon plays as The Prisoner of Second Avenue, many of these jokes — ranging from topics as the dangers of parking in the Roosevelt Field mall or college students protesting for divestiture — will resonate more strongly with Jewish people, New Yorkers, and those who lived through 1980. (And yes, I fall into all three demographics.) But anyone who has felt like an outsider in their own family will understand the pain, whether well-hidden or overtly exposed, that all of Greenberg's sharply drawn characters carry with them.

The second act brings Julie, Faye, and Jeff into sharper focus as they gather for a smaller holiday dinner, along with Julie's now-24-year-old son, Tim (convincingly played by Silbermann). He's a dreamy young man who is haunted by the myth of his deceased older brother and unwilling to accept Julie's imminent demise — a situation that has probably led to the still-infatuated Jeff returning from a five-year Chicago work stint. Meanwhile, Faye has transformed herself into a surprisingly strong and independent woman — and Julie's unlikely savior.

Director Lynne Meadow guides the entire cast into a unified ensemble, but there's no question that the two leading women give the play's standout performances.

Light's work, while occasionally reminiscent of her Tony Award-winning performance in Other Desert Cities, is never short of masterful. Such crackerjack timing should make her the envy of every stand-up comedian. Her physicality and accent never falter. But it is Light's emotional commitment to the role that most impresses, never shying away from the neuroses and crippling self-hatred that make Faye both pitiable and pitiful.

Hecht, long one of my favorite actresses, expertly embodies Julie, a woman for whom fantasy and grandeur take precedence over reality and necessity. She calls her desk an "escritoire," prepares boeuf Bourguignon and homemade consommé when stew and Campbell's soup would suffice, and revels in the intricate design of her late mother's dresses. (Hecht's delivery of a gorgeous second-act monologue about the creation of one such outfit is breathtaking.) But Hecht and Greenberg also let us know that Julie is aware that all facades, no matter how smartly put-together, can never completely disguise what's underneath. And in the show's final moments, when Julie all but acknowledges how soon her death will come, Hecht is simply shattering.

It's to Greenberg's credit that we leave the theater satisfied, yet wanting to see the next chapter in this family's saga. And even as we're sure in our hearts that more pain and suffering is to come, we're also willing to accept Julie's final benediction: "Everything's so...promising. Isn't it? So hopeful."