A Family 20 Years Later in Raven’s Assembled Parties

Julie-Shelley-Ben-Scotty-Jeff (suit)
Photo by Dean La Prairie.

“Times change,” Julie’s neurotic-if-charming sister-in-law, Faye, tells her near the end of The Assembled Parties, now in its Midwest premiere at Raven Theatre. “Yes,” is Julie’s reply. “Times change and new symmetries develop. It all makes so much sense.” With two acts set 20 years apart, Richard Greenberg’s play–nominated for a Tony Award in 2013–presumably exists to explore how times change for better and for worse; how symmetries are created and destroyed without much consideration of our hopes and dreams.

Set in a posh New York apartment, The Assembled Parties chronicles the denouement of the Bascov family across two Christmas dinners: Julie, matriarch and host; her husband, Ben; and their two sons, Scotty and Timmy. Joining them for the first dinner in 1980 are the aforementioned Faye, as well as her husband, Mort, and their socially awkward daughter, Shelley. Rounding out the bunch is Jeff, Scotty’s college buddy, visiting from Harvard for the holidays and eager to make a good impression.

Over the course of the first act, discussions span a variety of topics and rooms (the Bascovs’ upper west-side apartment, it is frequently commented, is easy to get lost in as it features 14 rooms). Thoughts, conversations and plot threads remain unresolved by the piece’s end. While this certainly reflects the nature of life, dramatically it translates to little payoff.

The Bascov home is beautifully created by veteran Chicago scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec. Pillars, crown molding, and a variety of hardwood floors comprise the pristine veneer of their opulent apartment, with living room, kitchen, dining room, and two bedrooms on full display within Raven’s East stage. It’s clear to see why newcomer Jeff is agog when discussing the apartment with his parents on the phone; audiences, too, stopped to stare upon entering to find their seats. Equally impressive are Theresa Ham’s period costumes, accurately illustrating era and class.

Functionally, the set poses a few problems when combined with some of the demands of Greenberg’s script. Director Cody Estle’s staging only goes so far in solving this problem, as some scenes happen simultaneously in separate rooms with separate characters, while others conclude with characters retiring to a bedroom or the kitchen, only to walk off stage. While the conceit ostensibly works, it does begin to wear down the verisimilitude of the production. Many scenes feature little movement for long swaths of time as characters sit at tables or on couches, only rising to refill a drink or leave the room. This approach emphasizes the hyper-articulate lyricism of Greenberg’s dialogue, but does little to energize the play’s two-and-a-half hour running time.

Estle has assembled a capable cast: Loretta Rezos is charismatic and poised as Julie, Marika Mashburn is aptly kooky as Shelley, and JoAnn Montemurro imbues Faye with a winning blend of wit and cynicism. However, conversations, while peppered with jokes or astute observations on life, felt largely general between actors. While characters opine about their hopes for the future, these dreams rarely seem felt, a problem in a play about dreams altered and deferred.

Throughout The Assembled Parties, jokes are made of then-presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In the moment, characters in this upper class Jewish family cannot believe their fate to live at a time when such “idiots” have been elected president. Performed in 2017, such conversations take on new light. “I’m starting to get nostalgic for his father,” Faye says of Bush in 2000. While some in the audience opening night laughed, others seemed more uncomfortable than amused. How many of us would prefer Reagan or Bush to our current administration? And what would have to happen in the next 20 years for us to look back nostalgically to a country led by Donald Trump?

“Times change.” Indeed they do.

The Assembled Parties runs at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., through March 25. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online or by phone at 773-338-2177.

Brent Eickhoff
Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.