Ruby Necklace Mystery in ‘Parties’; Old ‘Rascals’: Review

The unseen character in Richard Greenberg’s new drama “The Assembled Parties” is a ruby necklace imbued with life-affecting powers.

Ownership and changing fortunes are at the heart of this mystery play. It’s the most engrossing to date from a writer whose work (“Take Me Out” is the best known) I usually find too self-consciously clever to be taken seriously.

The busy playwright also wrote the adaptation of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that will close this weekend after a brief run, and has a musical version of the film “Far From Heaven” soon to begin performances at Playwrights Horizons.

The family members at the center of “Assembled Parties” will be familiar to Greenberg fans. They’re charming, over-educated, elitist, Christmas-celebrating Jews living in 14-room apartments on Central Park West.

They throw around words like “aleatory” in casual conversation. As in, “The question with Scotty has always been: Has he inherited his mother’s aleatory qualities?”

The mother is Julie, whose flibbertigibbet affectations conceal a sharp and possibly poisonous intellect. A former starlet whose “main talent was not looking like Sandra Dee,” she now plans extravagant meals and dotes upon her two sons. Julie, played by the enchanting Jessica Hecht, is also the owner of that ruby necklace.

The play opens on Christmas Eve, 1980, in the comfortably appointed kitchen, where Julie is slicing crudites and chatting with Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), her elder son’s visiting friend.

Christmas Music

“Bing Crosby, he’s a tribulation,” she observes, a propos the ubiquity of Christmas music. “It’s like a tiny acoustic rape every time you leave the apartment.”

To the disbelieving Jeff she tellingly adds, “I am the most ruthless woman you’ll ever meet. I’m diabolical.”

Julie’s married to Ben (Jonathan Walker), whose sister Faye (the entertainingly acidic Judith Light) is wed to the unpleasant Mort (Mark Blum).

Conversations float in and around those 14 rooms, or the handful we see in Santo Loquasto’s beautifully detailed revolving set. In Act I we learn two of Mort’s secrets: That Faye has never gotten over her dying mother’s gift of the ruby necklace to Julie, and he has certain information that will compel Ben, whom he loathes, to get the necklace for Faye.

Prodigal Friend

Act II, set 20 years later, finds the sisters-in-law widowed and other mysteries unfolding. Jeff has returned to the city after a lawyering stint in Chicago, to help Julie with her finances. One son has died; the other lurches aimlessly into adulthood.

Nothing and everything happens in this Manhattan Theatre Club production. The strength of “The Assembled Parties,” staged by artistic director Lynne Meadow with a fluidly involving intimacy, is the way family secrets insinuate themselves into the fabric even of lives lived independently. They penetrate the walls and overlap, and they always have unforeseen consequences.

Greenberg’s wit can still too often seem aimed more at scoring lefty cleverness points than suggesting real people, though it’s hard to resist when Julie refers to Bush pere “like middle management in a Fluffernutter factory.” And that’s a compliment, given her feelings about the newly elected son.

But the fullness of these characters gives them great resonance. And Jane Greenwood’s astonishing costumes, the best of which is a smashing burnished golden cocktail ensemble for Julie in Act II, etch both the people and the eras with indelible precision.

At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: ****

Dreaming Rascals

They’re not young and never really were rascals. But the rock group whose enormous hits included “Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free” have been reunited after four decades by none other than “Sopranos” and Springsteen veteran Steven Van Zandt for a couple of weeks of Broadway concerts under the title “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream.”

It’s a terrific concert though -- much like the recently opened “Motown: The Musical” -- a horror between the songs. Van Zandt and his co-producers assembled a montage of archival footage along with four actors playing the band members’ younger selves in staged interviews of unsurpassing dopiness.

But the songs are loud and happy, played against a faux-Joshua Light Show backdrop of psychedelic squishies and Op-Art spinnings. Cheerful Eddie Brigati’s vocals wandered a bit, but Felix Cavaliere on organ and vocals kept the band’s blues cred alive. Gene Cornish’s flashy guitar licks and steady, sharp rhythm playing looked easy and Dino Danelli kept a tight rein on the group with solid but charged drumming.

Through May 5 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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