Jessica Hecht’s Party Lines

Published May 8, 2013


Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, now on Broadway, sprawls throughout the many rooms of a palatial Upper West Side townhouse. The play’s characters make all kinds of conversation—here light and sparkling, there manic and desperate, later heartbreakingly sad—but always with an articulate charm, consistently pleasant to listen to even as Greenberg’s dialogue plucks at any number of other emotions in his audience.

The play’s eight actors are uniformly excellent, but none is more articulate, or more charming, than Jessica Hecht’s Julie, the matriarch of the lovely, lucky family (or so they seem, at first) that owns the house. Hecht’s Julie, a teenage movie star turned contented, glamorous, worldly housewife, is a magnet; she’s quick with both a joke and a thoughtfully kind word. She’s dreamy and deliberate, a perfect counter to the play’s other female lead, the neurotic and effusive Faye (Judith Light). The audience loves her immediately, upon meeting her on the night of her annual holiday dinner in 1980.

When the play’s second act opens, exactly 20 years later, we’re aware thanks to a series of small revelations that Julie’s family is, of course, more complicated than she might like to believe. Rather than barreling forward, the play (which has recently been nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including Best Play) unfolds delicately, until nothing is left but its heart.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: How did you react when you first read this script?

JESSICA HECHT: Yeah—when I first read it, I was crying. [laughs] It’s extremely moving. Obviously not unlike when people come to it and then they don’t know it’s going to have this sad turn and they start crying in the audience. This is a frequent thing. People say, “I can’t believe the first act was so funny and then, suddenly, I was crying.” [laughs] It’s this weird thing. So that was my response to the script, also because in a way I felt that there are these little threads of people that I know and Rich Greenberg, the writer, knew that are woven into the character of Julie and into the whole gestalt of the play. Sometimes I’ll think, “Oh, is that that person?” and then it’ll take a turn and I say, “No, it’s definitely not that person.” But there’s some basis of profound reality that I see in the script that is very moving to me. Just the level of artistry of his writing is pretty extraordinary.

SYMONDS: I was going to ask if you’ve known women like Julie. I think that part of what audiences connect to in her is that she’s both such an individual character and also a perfect representative of a type of woman—who is kind of a throwback, as she says in the script.

HECHT: Yeah. I do think there are people that I’ve come into contact with that are like Julie. You could look people like Jill Clayburgh or, probably people would say, Nora Ephron. You can look at any of those women who were incredibly comfortable as great cooks and great party throwers and raconteurs and also, by virtue of who they were, offered these lovely lives and lovely jobs. Things came to them because they had some sort of culture that was really magnetic.

Interesting to me, at least, is that often you meet those people and you feel, in their company, extremely warm and hopeful that they care about you, but you also think that they probably have 10 other people they put their attention to. You think, “Wow, this person is making me feel so special and like they really love me.” But the savvy part of me thinks, “They probably do that to everybody.” [laughs]

SYMONDS: Right. That’s what they say about great politicians too. Like Bill Clinton makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room.

HECHT: That’s the key to her, is that she does make people feel that way. She tries so hard to make people feel that way. In truth, there’s a little bit of longing with her, and at the end she settles with those people that are so fulfilling.

SYMONDS: It’s interesting that you say she tries hard. She’s so consistently grateful and gracious about the things in her life—is that openness and positivity something that she works on and has to spend time thinking about? Or just something that comes to her?

HECHT: Yeah, I think that she has cultivated this manner of being appreciative and gracious; it makes her feel really good, and she becomes addicted to that sense. When we talked about it in developing the play, Rich and Lynne [Meadow], our director, who is really articulate about it, would say, she didn’t grow up in that kind of environment. Her mother was not warm and not gracious to her as a role model. That was all she wanted, was people to love her up. She made that her whole milieu in life. That’s her thing. She endows people with a sense of well-being, happiness, and security. The more trouble befalls her, the more she insists that that’s the way she’s going to respond. So I think that it is conscious from the get-go, but it just becomes who it is. It’s a conscious choice to live that way.

SYMONDS: But a self-perpetuating one.

HECHT: It becomes like a religion, yeah.

SYMONDS: How much of her mannerism is written into the script? In the script, did Richard Greenberg make notes about her vocal inflection and the way she carries herself, or was that all worked out with Lynne?

HECHT: That’s all me and Lynne. What happened was, the script is written even more in an ethereal way. There are a lot of ellipses and different things that you see in the script that make you feel like she trails off and she’s sing-songy and this and that—and very sensitive to people, so she kind of interjects little warm things to them. When we were working on it, I was trying to play around with that. It became clear that if my voice was too high or soft, it makes her seem flighty. We became conscious of always doing what the script says, which is trailing off and being soft in certain places, but always trying to do it from a lower part of my voice—it’s a very technical thing—so the character seems grounded and very caring.

SYMONDS: So much of the play hinges on unseen events—particularly everything that happens between the first and second half. When you were preparing for the role, did you make an effort to think through all these changes and live some miniature version of those two decades in Julie’s life; or did you think about it in a more abstract way?

HECHT: I thought of it in an abstract way. The script was pared down a bit as we developed, so there were a couple of longer speeches, but to actually play those out only makes it seem like she hasn’t evolved. The most important thing is that you see that the character has passed through stuff and is no longer in it. I thought a lot about it, and I had a lot of dreams of really sad stuff, terrible, anxiety-provoking stuff. All that stuff that you sort of think about subconsciously began to work on me early in the play—I was obsessing about it, but not talking about it, so it was working itself out. When we were working on those scenes in the second half of the play, they just started filling themselves up—meaning that I felt connected to them, just organically.

SYMONDS: You mentioned that Julie didn’t grow up in the kind of household that she ends up creating in her own adult life. Did you yourself grow up in that kind of secular Jewish, East Coast intellectual setting?

HECHT: I did—a house of people who were socialist and communist from the Bronx, and those were my grandparents, and my parents were New York Jewish intellectuals that lived in Connecticut. But I’m kind of spiritual. I’m the only one in my family—I’m a practicing Jew—who has attached themselves to religion in a more traditional way. I’m Reconstructionist; I don’t serve the Sabbath, but I go to synagogue. I grew up in a household where people were very provocative in just the same way that these characters are, so it’s totally familiar to me.

SYMONDS: Had you known Judith Light at all beforehand? You have such a beautiful chemistry onstage.

HECHT: Oh, yeah. I never knew her before at all. She’s wonderful. We have a very similar sense of humor. I tease her a lot. [laughs] I can be extremely open with her. It’s funny with chemistry. Often if you are very, very close with someone, sometimes it does not read. In effect, your dynamic onstage is defused. You share too much onstage. There’s sort of a blurring of behavior that doesn’t read to the audience as chemistry.

SYMONDS: Because you have an inside language?

HECHT: Exactly. It’s like two people who are having an affair sometimes don’t read as attracted because they’re using all that energy in real life.

SYMONDS: Sure, Mr. and Mrs. Smith

HECHT: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. So you’re like, “God, they’re supposedly really hot for each other, but it seems like…” The thing is, with Judith and I: we completely adore each other and we have a wonderful time onstage, we genuinely do, but we don’t know each other that well. We’ve only known each other for a little while. I think we just come—as Richard said about a few moments in this play and several things that have occurred in rehearsal—that we share the same gene pool. I thought it was such an articulate way to describe it. We come from the same Eastern European, Jewish—she’ll say something and it will just be completely clear to me. She’s probably 15 years older than I am, and I would think of her as a complete and utter contemporary.

SYMONDS: Is there anything else you want to talk about?

HECHT: I’m so intrigued that the ideas of the play reach you. I can tell by your voice that you’re about 20 years younger than I. I mean that you sound so young and energetic and fresh, and that’s a thing that affected me, is that people of all ages are haunted by something in it. I just think back to when you were a kid and you think, oh, one day your parents are going to die. You start to have these realizations of the reality of life. My kids are young teenagers, 12 and almost 14; they don’t have that, really, yet. I just feel like the profound thing that this play has taught me is that on every level, starting with my son who saw it, there’s something that really strikes you that is undeniable about the progress of life. That hits you in a really subtle way. And I think it’s brilliance lies in that it’s connecting to this truth that we all have. Whether we grapple with it or not, that’s the story of the play. There’s really no big plotline, maybe than the ruby necklace or whatever, but the play is just about mortality. It’s just about life.