If every spring in New York means that when greenery finally blooms on scrawny trees Judith Light assumes her rightful place on Broadway, life would be pretty wonderful.
Trees finally blossomed this week, and Light is back on stage, in the very funny “The Assembled Parties” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, so life is pretty wonderful.
“The Assembled Parties” likely works best on this island, and to those who get the jokes with Yiddish words. Still, Richard Greenberg has written a brilliant play full of the sort of dialog that feels sharp enough to have come from someone who drank at the Algonquin Round Table.
This has the feel of old New York, set in a rambling upper West Side apartment. It opens in the kitchen as Julie (Jessica Hecht, Broadway’s “Harvey,” TV’s “Breaking Bad”) is cooking and chatting with Jeff (Jeremy Shamos, Broadway’s “Clybourne Park,” TV’s “Fringe”), her son Scotty’s pal.
He, like everyone who encounters Julie, falls a little in love with her because she is charming and sweet, a bit clueless and daft, but smart and incisive. As they chat, she says to him, “You are utterly ignorant of absolutely everything.”
And he still falls in love with her — though it’s not broached sexually — because she is that lovely.
The play opens in 1980 in a 14-room apartment, where Julie lives with her husband, Ben (Jonathan Walker, Broadway’s “After the Fall,” TV’s “Elementary”), and their two sons, 4-year-old Timmy (Alex Dreier) and Scotty (Jake Silbermann, “The Good Wife”), who just graduated college and brought home his pal Jeff.
The small family that joins them for Christmas dinner is Ben’s sister, Faye (Light, “Other Desert Cities,” TV’s “Who’s The Boss?”), and her husband, Mort (Mark Blum, Broadway’s “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,” TV’s “Fringe”). If he were more ethically evolved, Mort could be a snake.
They have their daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld) with them, and she is developmentally challenged. Her father criticizes her and her mother nags her. Shelley’s is not a happy existence.
There are the usual secrets and lies, but this holiday dinner goes a little deeper with threats and blackmail. All along Julie, who has an ethereal quality as she delivers zingers, just seems to float around and Faye gets through the first act by swigging vodka and downing sedatives.
Faye is bemoaning that Ronald Reagan is about to take office and cannot grasp how people she knows voted for him. “Republican Jews,” she says, exasperated. “What is that — like skinny fat people?”
Faye and Ben’s mother, whom we don’t meet, is difficult but that gives them fodder for lines. Julie, who wants to make everyone happy, had been a teenage movie star.
“My main talent was only not looking like Sandra Dee,” she says.
As their life stories unfold, we learn Faye never loved Mort but married him because on the night she met him, she got drunk and pregnant. They lived uneasily together since.
And yes, this is a comedy.
The second act is also at Christmas, but 20 years later. Julie and Faye move as old women; Jeff, now a success, visits. The grand apartment is in disrepair and Tim (played by Silbermann, who was Scotty in the first act) is the only male survivor of the blood relatives
Julie’s airy-fairy spirit and Faye’s intellect are intact. The men’s absences are completely logical and no excessive exposition is needed. Nothing is excessive; there’s not an extra line or pause.
It’s a tight gem of a play, one worthy of every award that could be bestowed upon it. Light proves for the third season in a row — after “Lombardi” and last year’s “Other Desert Cities” — why she won a Tony and become a most wonderful harbinger of a New York spring.