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A Literary Journal in Book Form

The Atmosphere of Memory By David Bar Katz

Labyrinth Theater Company

Bank Street Theater

Reviewed by Barbara Proust Solomon, December 9th, 2011


David Bar Katz’s new play, The Atmosphere of Memory, has received an amazing range of both laudatory and critical reviews. I’m mainly in the laudatory camp, particularly in regard to Ellen Burstyn’s subtle rendition of a role that could have easily become overblown. On one level Memory is about family and family memory as its title suggests. The budding playwright Jon (Max Casella) is the malcontent son who has kept a lifetime of notebooks recording his family’s destructive loony behavior, some of which he broods upon in the opening scene with his laid back psychiatrist. Jon, clearly a full blown hoarder of grief, has summoned his family of actors to do a reading of his play-in-progress which he has named “Laura, Blow Out Your Candles,” presumably in homage to Tennessee Williams.

 

Memory, and family memory, has been a staple of theatre and fiction since Marcel first nibbled his tea soaked madeleine, and the most pertinent part of “The Atmosphere of Memory” isn’t the Rashamon-like family versions of the past (Ellen Burstyn is brilliant as the mother ablaze with narcissism – she performs a monologue of Medea, braiding it in a lopsided way to her cloying memories of having being a loving mother.) Meanwhile her ex husband (but perhaps he isn’t so ex) stomps into the play mainly to contradict her, making withering remarks about their two offspring.

 

A hidden strength of the work, which jumps around between broad comedy and grim truths, hidden because it comes at the end of a play in badly of need of cutting, is the author’s pertinent philosophical question: need a writer’s freedom to write include savaging his relatives, in this case his younger sister. In the name of art, freedom and memory Jon takes pot shots at Esther (Melissa Ross.) In his work in progress, he mocks her pubescent years, detailing both how her sheets were stained with menstrual blood for all to see and her awkward appearance. Esther (perhaps speaking for the true point of view of the playright) tells her brother he is not at all dealing with memory; au contraire, he is destroying her future sense of self. Katz’s complicated philosophical point of view takes issue with the contemporary notion that all can be revealed, thus privacy is dead. In the ensemble cast John Glover shines, providing Ellen Burstyn with a necessary counterpoint.

 

Theater Review: November 9, 2011
Children  by A.R. Gurney at the Beckett Theatre in Manhattan

In the Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant 1940 movie “The Philadelphia Story” the arriviste lout who hopes to marry the divorced Katharine is put in his place (he’s a klutz with upper class sports).     But despite their hasty mistaken  divorce Cary and Katharine are joined at the hip through their love of sail boats. As Cary puts it, Katharine is “yar”,  and we assume that these Philadelphia  WASPS  then live their perfectly matched lives in their tight “yar” WASP sail boating milieu.  “Children”, an early 1974 Gurney play (he wrote it while he was still a professor at MIT), concerns 1970s New England WASPS, this time gathered for a Fourth of July weekend at their summer abode on an island off the Massachusetts  coast.   Yet by the 70s WASP culture is crumbling:  the three grown “children” are floundering, attempting  to be part of it. This time the sport of choice is tennis, not sailing; the constant clinking of ice cubes into cool alcoholic drinks remains the beverage of choice, but horror of horrors, the third generation (their children) are guzzling coca-cola.   Gurney specifically credits Cheever’s short story “Goodbye My Brother” as the inspiration for “Children”.    But, as he points out “As I worked on the play, I appropriated more and more material outside the story until I finally could say it was ‘suggested by’ rather than ‘adapted from’ Cheever.”

The play achieved is pure Gurney, not Cheever.  Darrie Lawrence who plays the matriarch of the clan is a marvel, a true gift to the audience.  Her range, brilliantly expressed in subtle changes of emotions, voice tonalities, and swiftly changing expressions are remarkable, and forever WASP.   Her solo arias moves her story through changes of time and mores. In the world she was born into, where love to one’s progeny, more often than not, was expressed in the ordering of their future financial assets, her hidden life suddenly revealed seems to have been refreshingly passionate.    She reveals her true past: she and the trusty family friend “Uncle Bill”,  both married to mates they did not love, chose not to divorce in keeping with the habits of the times -- they conducted their longtime love affair in secret.    Now, with both partners dead, she informs her brood that she and “Uncle Bill” plan to marry and travel the world.  But her mixed up brood,  well played by Margaret Nichols, Richard Thieriot and  Lynn  Wright, confused between the new values of the 1970s and older WASP customs, foil her desire to achieve her long delayed freedom.    The matriarch’s starchiness  in gamely facing up to her lost dreams resounds with such compassion one wonders if Gurney partially based his play on his maternal grandmother who was banished from Buffalo society because of her divorce.

“Children” is deftly directed by Scot Alan Evans. This season he is presenting two iconic American playwrights  with  totally different takes on the American family.   In addition to “Children”  he is presenting Neil Simon’s  “Lost in Yonkers” this spring.

Reviewed by Barbara Probst Solomon   

Theatre review: March 1, 2011

BLACK TIE by A.R. Gurney

Despite the nearly unanimous raves for “Black Tie”, Gurney’s stunning new play, very little has been said about his almost sotto voce musings on the nature of language in regard to social change. We are so absorbed by Daniel Davis’s pitch perfect performance as the upper class WASP grandfather of the groom that we almost take for granted Gurney’s subtle nuances about the story of language. A trio of generations has gathered together for the wedding of Teddy, a member of the third generation (Teddy’s grandfather presents himself as a ghost visible only to his son, the member of the middle generation), at a rundown Adirondack hotel chosen by the bride and groom precisely because its motley look in their eyes is a plus. The set by John Arnone, the direction of Mark Lamos and the acting of the entire cast, Gregg Edelman as Curtis, the father of the groom, Carolyn McCormick, as his WASP wife (she is timidly reaching out for social change), and the supporting cast and entire production are just right in interpreting Gurney’s subtle vision.

 

I’ve seen myriad familial ghosts in theatre and movies; Daniel Davis is among the best. He manages to be profound with a light touch. Gurney eschews easy comedy – the foibles of upper class Protestants from a bygone time -- to do something much more subtle. The grandfather shocks his son Curtis (he is having some difficulties with his wife Mimi) by bluntly inquiring if Curtis’s sex life is good. (The grandfather is obviously the sort of man who would say “rich” but would eschew “affluent”, who could be, depending on ther occasion, both pragmatic and romantic.) Curtis is mildly lost, sandwiched in between two very different generations. Jesse Goldstein’s costumes skillfully tap into Gurney’s intended mood. Above all, his “Black Tie” is a play that demands thinking about, particularly the author’s cry against willful ugliness.

 

“Black Tie” is presented by primarystages.org at the 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street through March 20th.

 

Review by The Reading Room


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