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 www.labtheater.org Through Nov.13.