nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
May 6, 2007
Jonathan Lichtenstein's play Memory relies on an old theatrical trick: a play within a play. Unfortunately, in this case its seems like an old device is being used as a way to save some amazing scenes that the author couldn't quite fashion into a coherent play.
The play is set in a rehearsal room, where actors banter and joke while waiting for others to arrive. They are under the tutelage of their director (Christian McKay), who also plays piano throughout. The actual play that they rehearse is a mishmash of scenes in the life of Eva (Vivien Parry), a German Jew who survived the Holocaust. She has been visited in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall by her grandson Peter (Lee Haven Jones). His father became separated from Eva when he was sent away on the Kindertransport to Britain to protect him from the Nazis, so Peter is desperate for any information about his family. The scenes in the "play" (they are rehearsed out of order) jump back and forth between Eva's memories and Peter's quest to wring family stories out of the ill, reluctant Eva.
As a young woman, Eva and her future husband Aron (a wonderful Simon Nehan), find their relationship with their longtime friend Felix (Daniel Hawksford) strained after Eva falls in love with Aron instead of him. He claims to not be upset, however, and the Jewish couple agrees to go into business opening a shoe store with their gentile friend. Eva and Aron soon find themselves caring for the two children of a cousin, with one of their own on the way. Things with Felix become more and more strained as Hitler comes to power, and Eva and Aron attempt escape, but find no one will give them visas. Trapped as the war grows worse and Felix rises within the SS, Eva is forced to make a desperate choice.
As we experience these scenes, it is unclear how much is occurring simply in Eva's memory, and how much the testy Eva is actually telling to Peter, although we can clearly see them starting to bond. There is also a subplot involving a Palestinian man named Bashir (Ifan Huw Dafydd) and an Israeli army officer (Oliver Ryan) who must convince him to leave his home so a wall can be built as a defense against terrorists. These scenes have no particular connection to the rest of the show, and it took me a while to realize Dafydd was supposed to be a Palestinian (the accent he was doing sounded Eastern European to me).
Memory is part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, and certainly has a notable Brit at the helm: former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Terry Hands directs the play with style and speed, and has also done the haunting lighting design. The cast is uniformly strong, but they can't fix the problems with the script.
The scenes that take place in Eva's memory are haunting and well written, and Parry is wonderful switching between the young and vital Eva and the crotchety, sick old woman she becomes. Unfortunately, the scenes of actors rehearsing seemed totally unnecessary to me, and not particularly realistic (one actor is told to completely reverse his entire performance with one sentence, and he does so immediately, without one word of question or complaint). If Lichtenstein were to rewrite the play to simply focus on Eva's story, he would have a very strong piece on his hands. The final moment, lit only by candlelight, is particularly strong; but as it stands I cannot recommend it.