When Leo Tolstoy wrote "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," he knew he was setting up the world he would describe in Anna Karenina. What he could have no way of foreseeing is that he was also issuing a challenge to American playwrights.
And they've eagerly responded over the decades with works depicting every possible particular they could draw from experience -- or cook up -- having to do with chronically cranky family units.
It needs pointing out, however, that the Russian novelist also had his much-quoted observation slightly wrong. He failed to point out that unhappy families actually tend to be unhappy in similar ways -- betrayals, secrets, illnesses, mendacity, deaths, internecine manipulations, power struggles, jealousies, repressed or blatantly open resentments and the occasional shared joy.
The specificity of how these play out is what makes each unhappy family unhappy in its own way. That brings us to the specificities of this week's addition to The Annals of Dysfunctional American Families, Middle-Class Jewish Division: Richard Greenberg's The Assembled Parties, adroitly directed by Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman.
It's a strongly recommended drama that takes place on Manhattan's Central Park West in a beautifully furnished 14-room apartment, the confusing layout of which eventually becomes a metaphor for all the lost souls trying to find their way in a perplexing, disappointing life.
The primary inhabitant is Julie (Jessica Hecht, looking lovely but giving her vocal mannerisms more of a work-out than needed). The lady of the house is a former movie star -- but only in four films when an adolescent -- and the daughter of a dress designer, which means she often wears absolutely stunning items designed by 17-time-Tony-nominated-no-wins (what gives?) Jane Greenwood.
Surrounding Julie in Greenberg's first act, which takes place on Christmas Day 1980, are her apparently philandering husband Ben (Jonathan Walker, effective but coming across a tad young for the role), her handsome and promising son Scotty (Jake Silbermann, dominating his brief turns nicely) and young son Timmy (Alex Dreier, another of the talented kids on Broadway these days).
A skilled cook, Julie is habitual holiday hostess to Ben's sister Faye (Judith Light, as commanding here as she always is), Faye's shady but evidently faithful husband Mort (the always on-the-mark Mark Blum) and their dim-witted daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld, playing low IQ extremely well). The guest in the house, developing a crush on Julie, is Scotty's college roommate Jeff (Jeremy Shamos, appearing to be a tad too old for his role, but wait for act two).
For this Christmas, the action is effectively divided into several Chekhovian scenes made extremely effective by the turning of Santo Loquasto's ingenious set. As it revolves and the characters mix and mingle, the audience learns plenty about intra-family conflicts, some of which the members themselves know and some of which they conveniently -- or inconveniently -- don't.
Perhaps the most significant line spoken during these sequences -- a few of which Greenberg and Meadow make clear occur simultaneously -- is a line Jeff overhears while walking through a hallway. "A fucking string of phony rubies" is how it goes. Greenberg sees that the outburst is heard again in its context during a subsequent heated Ben-Mort exchange.
While the first act is used to introduce the characters and their interplay, the second act -- which unfolds 20 years later on Christmas Day 2000 -- another tree, even more laden with trinkets this time -- reveals what's befallen the two families and the one outsider as a result of who they were then and how their expectations have been foiled.
To begin with, Ben and Mort are among the missing, as is Shelley, who's married a Puerto Rican man and thrown Faye aside (this affirmed during an unpleasant phone call). Scotty has succumbed to AIDS, and it's made plain he wasn't homosexual, though show-wise patrons may wonder whether he was in earlier drafts.
Present for this bittersweet gathering are Julie, still radiant and possessed of her tempered positive outlook, and the plain-speaking -- but with accent -- Faye. Also on hand is now long-time family friend Jeff, who's made enough money lawyering in Chicago to give it up. Timmy, now Tim, also comes and goes dramatically. His secrets are the ones that emerge, while others that concern (spoiler alert!) the supposedly phony rubies don't entirely come to light.
Though Greenberg leaves loose ends lying about -- the least of them being why this apparently proud Jewish family celebrates Christmas so devotedly -- the writing is mostly at the level of his best work (Take Me Out, The Violet Hour, Three Days of Rain). Indeed, this play would be worth the time If only for the pair of act-two monologues he hands Julie and Faye. The former talks dreamily about the relationship with her designing mother, and the latter recounts the tale of those phony rubies -- i. e., what she's certain she knows of it.
The dialogue -- handled with finesse by the entire ensemble (okay, Hecht is intermittently too self-serving with it) -- is spot-on for these Jews who may have made some assimilation gains but haven't abandoned many of their pithier Yiddishisms. The most touching lines, especially during the play's second half, belong to the health-compromised Julie.
Luckily for Light, the funniest lines -- yes, there's abundant humor here -- are Faye's. The temptation is to quote them all, but two will suffice. Faye, insisting she's apolitical, quips about the first President George Bush that he "always felt to me like middle management in a Fluffernutter factory." Talking about family recollections, she suggests that "old people boil down to a handful of fables."
For playwright Greenberg, who's been absent the last few years, this is a busy time. His adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's wasn't welcomed with open arms by critics, although I consider it superior to the version a different author dropped on London three years ago. (It closes this weekend.) He has his libretto for the musical adaptation of the movie Far From Heaven due shortly at Playwrights Horizons. And now, there's The Assembled Parties, certainly the highlight of a season when most of the new plays have been lowlights.
More:Leo Tolstoy Richard Greenberg The Assembled Parties Review Jessica Hecht The-assembled-parties
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more