The intermission at "The Assembled Parties" takes 20 years. No, really: The first act begins and ends in a Manhattan apartment on Christmas Day in 1980, and the second opens in the same place on Christmas Day in 2000. It is the best time travel right now on Broadway.
The latest work by playwright Richard Greenberg is a beautiful and touching look at the inner workings of a well-to-do family, their mistakes and the stories that bind them.
The two-decade shift reveals that the things that bother us now intensely — that boil our blood or worry us — are often not the things we care about later. And that people we thought we knew are very different. Love and compassion seem to travel through time fine, however.
The Manhattan Theatre Club's world premiere — starring a luminous Jessica Hecht and a super Judith Light — opened Wednesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, a few blocks from where Greenberg's other Broadway work this season, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," sits like a lump. There's no question which of his plays to see.
The two parts of "The Assembled Parties" can stand alone, but few patrons will not want to see what eventually happened to the folks in Act 1. Light and Hecht, who play sisters-in-law, are the spine of the show, and only a few of the other characters take the jump in time with them.
Lynne Meadow directs with superb skill, keeping the tension rising while allowing the actors all the room to show their gifts.
Hecht plays Julie, a former movie star with two beautiful kids who seems to have everything — riches, a great husband and skill in the kitchen. It is her 14-room apartment with rich inlays and expensive wooden furniture where both acts take place. Though all are Jews, Christmas is being celebrated with food and wine and tinsel.
Julie is a fascinating character: She's a romantic, but not a pushover. She's deeply emotional, intelligent and yearning, but not always willing to probe the darkness. With a breathy, calm and happy demeanor, Hecht is addictive to watch.
Her sister-in-law Faye is the opposite — a worrier, haunted by poor decisions and fearful of the future. When we first meet the two, Faye is in his mid-50s and menopausal. She begs her sister-in-law for some chemical relief.
"Give me a pill," she asks.
"Oh — I'm sorry — damn it, I'm not depressed!" Julie says.
The dinner scene in 1980 reveals some drama that the two women are unaware of — Faye's husband, Mort (a terrific Mark Blum), and Julie's husband (a strong Jonathan Walker) have some unattractive business to attend to, which includes a mysterious ruby necklace.
Meanwhile, Julie's oldest son, Scott (Jake Silbermann), is rethinking his life. Scott's school friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos, superb as always) has been invited and is our guide, playing a stranger navigating long-practiced family rituals.
The first act's several private conversations are made possible by Santo Loquasto's nifty Lazy Susan set, with bedrooms turning to reveal the apartment's entry way, which turns again to reveal a sitting room and then a dining room. A polite but tense dinner — as probably only the very rich can pull off — takes place.
Act 2 opens in 2000 with Julie, Faye and Jeff — now in many ways the family's guardian — in a living room that takes up the whole stage and no longer moves. Julie and Faye have reversed roles in many ways, and the fate of the other characters is revealed, as are most of the loose threads from Act 1. Everyone has aged the same 20 years, but those two decades have done different things to each of them.
And though death is coming close for some, life has begun for others. There are few more poignant scenes than the play's final one, in which wistfulness and hope collide, thanks to some superb acting and writing. It's worth aging 20 years to see.