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The Atmosphere of Memory
By Elyse Sommer
The play combines two popular genres -- the backstage drama and memory play. Like many other backstage plays, The Atmosphere of Memory has a meta-theatrical twist, a play-within-the-play (its title: Blow Out Your Candle). Bar Katz's uses the memory play element as a send-up of famous playwrights who successfully dined out on their personal dramas. Chief among these are Eugene ONeill and Tennessee Williams. It's from the long and fascinating stage directions for The Glass Menagerie that The Atmosphere of Memory owes its title.
While sending up these theatrical greats' navel gazing dramaturgy does serve to showcase Bar Katz's comic gifts, his genre spanning plot is a mish-mash that's just too clever by three-quarters. Repetitious vulgarity is no match for Williams' and O'Neil's enduring poetry, and the comic shifts between the meta-theatrical-play and its playwright's reality somehow never achieve the snap and crackle of meta-theatrical comedy Michael Frain's Noises Off.
As the play opens, we see Tom (Devid Deblinger) on his shrink's (Charles Goforth) slick black leather recliner. He's finally telling him about his rent-paying free lance work that's so gross that he's kept it under wraps even during these so-called truth telling sessions. Be forewarned, this is only the beginning of the play's frequent in your face dialogue about semen and penises.
As it turns out Deblinger is the actor who's playing the lead in the play by Jon (Max Casella), the wannabe new master of feeding on memories of his unhappy youth. Director Pam MacKinnon deftly maneuvers the back and forth shifts between Jon's revisits to his personal traumas off stage and in Blow Out Your Candle, the play within for which Goforth's Shrink metamorphoses into the director.
Without going into too much surprise spoiling detail, Playwright Jon has not only dipped into his own miserable family history, shades of Williams and O'Neill, but has cast Claire, (Ellen Burstyn), his real mother to play her counterpart in his play. She's film and tv actress whose career ended with the birth of her children — or, if rumor and Jon's memory are right, as a result of a losing battle with the bottle. Eventually Jons sister Esther (Melissa Ross) also shows up to defend her recollections of their sibling relationship against his.
To further complicate matters Jon has asked his outrageously outspoken father Murray (John Glover) to come to New York to fill in the holes in the memories driving the plot of Blow Out Your Candle during its previews at Broadway's Music Box Theater. Seems Murray lives in Philadelphia, though why and in what type of housing or job situation is never clarified -- which is also true for Claire, who has presumably been living in New York but on what source of income remains a mystery. At any rate, with all these dysfunctional family members on scene while the play-within-this comedy is still in an unfrozen state, it's a sure bet that they're not on the same page with Jon vis-a-vis his interpretation of growing up in their dysfunctional midst.
Ellen Burstyn and even more, John Glover, are obviously having a grand old time playing the implausible and imperfect parents in Bar Katz's implausible and imperfect comedy. Furthermore, these characters are hardly interesting enough to warrant Jon's spending so many hours of his youth obsessively maintaining tapes and notebooks of everything they said and did. No wonder he's still determined to find some big dark trauma that he somehow missed to provide him with a resounding climax as well give him the closure with his father that will allow him to move beyond this narcissistic type of copycat drama.
The sought for big missed moment eludes Jon. But his habit of using every scrap of utterances from his family, especially the persistently unloving but jokey Murray. When Blow Out Your Candle is finally frozen it winds up with the cast joining its narrator (Sidney Williams as, yes, a singing and guitar strummng troubador) in a Gllbert and Sullivan version of one of Murray's rather lame jokes.
Theater insiders may get a kick out of the first act's fourth scene when the cast meets at a bar to discuss an early preview performed before a house heavily papered with an audience from an old age home (which director Mike defends with "Applause is applause. And old people are tougher audiences because they remember when theater was good." David Deblinger's Steve, Jon's counterpart in the play, in less supportive, ripping it to shreds, starting with an attack on its length ("What’s the running time of this beast? Like three hours and forty? It’s not a competition, Jon. It’s not like the playwright who dies after writing the most words.). Some audience members may understandably wish they could join in with a few complaints of their own.
All this should be a lot more funny and entertaining than it is. Perhaps it will be for anyone who fnds the Narrator's opening song as witty and hilarious as intended: "If only we could go back in time/and put it right/and stop the crime./If only the time barrier was porous/we’d be like Dr. Who and his tardis./But what Tennessee Williams does with his memory plays/Tom attempts with semen spray."
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