Sunday, February 14, 2016


By Toby Zinman



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Piradello dunks his Proustian madeleine into his tea and suddenly lines blur between character and actor, illusion and reality, autobiography and fiction, past and present.  Others present at the tea party are Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill. Latecomers include Lady Macbeth and Medea.

The games and the layers pile up in David Bar Katz’s new play, The Atmosphere of Memory  just opened at  the famed Labyrinth Theater in Greenwich Village. 

The Atmosphere of Memory (the title is taken from the stage directions of The Glass Menagerie )  is a witty melodrama, or, alternatively, a moving satire, or, alternatively, a nimble dysfunctional famdram: all paradoxes intended. 

A playwright named Jon, has written a play called “Blow Out Your Candles, Laura” which is in rehearsal. It’s an autobiographical play about his monstrous parents and his unhappy sister, among other things.  He is played by an actor named Steve in the frame play, i.e., “real” life, but in the play within the play, he’s called Tom. (Get it?)  The role of the mother is being played by Jon’s real mother, an actress making a comeback. Soon his father shows up, and we watch Steve, in an interview, reply as Jon with unscripted lines, speaking  across the boundaries of who’s who. Of course, the lines are scripted by Katz.

The play alternates between rehearsals and family confrontations, as more and more is revealed and more and more is withheld. The point seems to be that nobody—no matter how diligent the record or how firm the recollection, ever remembers the truth. Or at least one person’s truth is not the same as anyone else’s truth, memory being private and unreliable. Point of view rules.

The director of Jon’s play feels the script needs to be trimmed, and the same could be said of Katz’s play.  And although Pam MacKinnon’s direction slides dexterously from scene to scene (and there are many in this two-act, big-cast play) she hasn’t quite resolved the problematic sightlines of the venue, with some crucial moments obscured by columns and actors’ backs.

The cast is terrific, and the quick-change nuances are surgically precise:

Ellen Burstyn, winner of the “triple crown” of an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar, navigates between semi-crazy mother and semi-crazy mother, as well as beautifully navigating the treacherous challenge of an actress playing an actress playing an actress. 

John Glover (Tony and Obie winner) as Jon’s father, struts and swaggers with exasperating  sexy/slimy charm. 

Max Casella (The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire)  gives a tricky performance as Jon who is both present and absent—both as the playwright and the son/brother/boyfriend whose existence seems to be so tied to his childhood as to  barely exist in his adult world . 

David Deblinger plays the actor playing the Jon figure onstage, but since we meet him first on his analyst’s couch, we discover how much he has in common with the playwright’s surrogate.

Kelley Curran, Charles Goforth, Paul Kandel, Kelley Rael O’Donnell, Melissa Ross and Sidney Williams support with sometimes moving, sometimes amusing contributions.

All we really need at the end is for David Bar Katz to show up.


Labyrinth Theater Company at  the Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank Street, New York.  Tickets $50.  Information: 212-513-1080 or  Through Nov.13.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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