Early in The Assembled Parties, as one of the guests, Faye, downs a healthy serving of Valium and vodka, she kvetches that she feels like “a character in a farce.” By the end of the lengthy (the show has a two and a half hour running time) opening evening of Raven Theatre’s production of the 2013 Tony-nominated work by Richard Greenberg, I shared Faye’s sentiment; the (at best) insensitive script and overly exaggerated performances left me feeling as if I had time traveled back to an era of Chicago theatre where jokes regarding race, gender, and violence were both commonplace and readily acceptable.
The script follows a wealthy Upper West Side Jewish family as they prepare to celebrate Christmas. The dysfunctional group includes the matriarch Julie, a former teen movie star determined to maintain order and cheerfulness; her husband’s sister Faye, an outspoken woman filled with both old-world Yiddishisms and new-world political views; and Jeff, a close friend of the family’s eldest son determined to insert himself into the family dynamics. Tension between the group grows as Faye tries to cajole her daughter (Shelley) into Jeff’s arms and the patriarchs of the respective houses argue over family heirlooms, yet the actual purpose of all this squabbling never becomes clear. When the second act jumps twenty years ahead, taking us to another Bascov Christmas gathering, similar sparks ignite and then fizzle out inconclusively.
My own vague plot analysis leads me to the first point--the script itself. Why any theatre company in the progressive Chicago community would want to produce this particular play in this particular moment is beyond me; from classifying singing as “acoustic rape” to writing off discriminatory comments with the quip “racial slurs come in handy at times of high emotion,” the play’s language felt obtuse and outdated (much the same feeling a person might get when his or her grandmother uses anachronistic or offensive terms to describe race or ethnicity). And, though the text attempts moments of self-awareness--having one character comment at the beginning that “it’s [the atmosphere] like the sets of those plays you love with the ‘breezy dialogue’”--there’s no substance underneath the wry commentary. Never quite concluding whether it wants to highlight the humor of Neil Simon or the drama of Edward Albee, The Assembled Parties ultimately read like a play struggling with an identity crisis.
The script’s confusing sense of self was not helped by the over the top performances of the ensemble cast, who, under the direction of Cody Estle, neither strived for realism or committed to farce. Loretta Rezos’ Julie managed to squeeze out a few genuine moments amongst the witticisms, but most of her performance seemed focused on donning her best Katharine Hepburn impression (to be fair, it was a great impression...it just had no place in this particular show). Raven theatre co-founder Joann Montemurro had the audience laughing rambunctiously but never toned down her performance enough to allow moments like a conversation with her estranged daughter to resonate emotionally, and Christopher Peltier’s turn as the more grounded character Jeff came across not as caring but predatory (he jokes early on to Scotty that he plans on “marrying your mom”) as he hovers over Rezos’ Julie.
Upon first glance, the technical elements at least seemed sound--a large set of the family’s grandiose apartment filled with the requisite amounts of booze and ornate chinaware. Yet, when a set design strives for realism, moments like one where Julie pulls valium out of a basket in the kitchen stand out as poor execution. The elevator music that unncessarily played between scene transitions further hindered the show’s aesthetic.
Overall, both the play and Raven Theatre Company’s approach seemed radically out of place with our current political moment, and the experience had me longing for art that would provide something funny or meaningful rather than a confused combination of the two.
By Leigh Austin.
The Assembled Parties runs at Raven Theater through March 25th, 2017.