Friday, May 3, 2013

The Assembled Parties: Confronting Our Expectations

(not a review, but a response to The Assembled Parties)

Jessica Hecht as Julie, Jeremy Shamos as Jeff,
and Judith Light as Faye

There's a little Jewish Mothah in all of us.

Just as the stereotypical Jewish Mother is always looking to matchmake her children (and everyone else's children), so we the audience, while watching a story unfold, are looking for clues for how it will all work out. This includes, of course, any romantic options for our characters. We expect a little romance with our drama.

So when Jeff, under interrogation by his best friend's parents, with whom he is spending a Jewish Christmas dinner, starts describing their son's girlfriend in glowing terms, even revealing that he met her first, we think, "Aha! He is in love with her." And perhaps he is, but as we never meet her, that is a love that never comes to fruition. But then - his best friend's cousin Shelley, an awkward young woman, appears, and her Jewish Mother deliberately leaves the two of them alone to get acquainted. Could perhaps this be our expected romance?

But no - the conversation quickly fizzles, despite Jeff's valiant efforts, and he dashes away to search the labyrinthine 14-room apartment for Scotty, who has holed up in his bedroom. There he declares, jokingly, that he is in love with Scotty's mother and will marry her, and Scotty's father will just have to gracefully step back. We laugh, because it isn't literally true, but there is truth at the heart of it - there's something infectious and instantly enamoring in Julie, in her effortless good will, her unshakable belief that life is meant to be wonderful, that the young people around her positively glow with possibilities and bright futures, that everything is about to get better. It goes beyond mere optimism to a deeply-held belief, the way some people believe in God, that this is how life is, and how it should be. We all fall a bit in love with Julie ourselves.

And then in Act Two, we get to see a little bit of that bright future - twenty years down the line, the same apartment, but the assembled parties for this year's Christmas are far fewer. Whereas before we had two grown couples, three twenty-somethings and a four-year-old sick in bed, now all that remain are Julie, her acerbic but loving sister-in-law Faye, Scotty's now-grown younger brother Tim, and, surprisingly, Jeff. Jeff perhaps kept to his declaration after all - he didn't marry the widowed Julie, nor is he romantically in love with her, but - after Scotty died not long after events of Act One, a horrible consequence of an HIV-infected blood transfusion, Jeff stepped in to join the family as Scotty's surrogate - looking after Julie after she is widowed, looking out for young Timmy, who grew up without truly understanding the tragedy that hit his family twenty years earlier. Jeff clearly adores Julie in the manner of a doting son, and she returns his affection.

But how can this abridged family resolve itself? Julie is quietly deteriorating in health while her finances are, unbeknownst to her, destitute, though Faye and and Jeff quietly funnel money in to support her home and life; and Timmy, the one blood relative she has left, is hardly ever home, and spinning an elaborate set of lies to keep her from the actual truth of his life. None of the young people lived up to the glorious future she prophesied in 1980. Her expectations have not been met (nor have ours, really, on entering what we thought were ordinary enough circumstances as the play began), but perhaps that is not a terrible thing, either for her or for us. Instead, we've found a new story to be told, a new possibility:

Timmy reveals that he now has a 16-day-old baby whom he has named after his deceased brother. And suddenly, the possibilities have opened again - there is a new glowing youth, a grandchild, a chance for life to be everything Julie dreamed it would be. She insists that the remaining family consolidate in her cavernous apartment, and, as Christmas 2000 winds down, looks toward the future as a new bright beacon of all the wonderful things it can be. It will get better. It will be wonderful. Julie expects a world that will change only for the better. And, as Faye quietly points out, Julie won't be around to see that it doesn't, so why not pretend, just a little while longer.

Jake Silberman as Tim, Judith Light, and Jessica Hecht

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