The Atmosphere of Memory
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
October 29, 2011
David Bar Katz doesn’t do himself any favors by having two of his characters in his new play The Atmosphere of Memory complain about the running time of the play in which they’re supposed to be acting. “We’re talking about cuts,” says one. “Thank God,” the other replies. “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 wins.”
Including the intermission, The Atmosphere of Memory, about a playwright crafting a play based on his family, runs about two and a half hours. If the play actually needed to be that length, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But running time is the first of its many problems, despite a slick production by Pam MacKinnon that’s acted better than it deserves to be.
A send-up of family plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Glass Menagerie (both of which are mentioned), Atmosphere finds Jon (Max Casella), in the throes of rewrites of his newest work, a memory play entitled "Blow Out Your Candles, Laura," currently in previews on Broadway. There’s a strange sort of nepotism going on in the production, which stars Jon’s mother Claire (Ellen Burstyn) as his mother, his girlfriend Helen (Kelley Curran) as his sister Esther (played in the “real” world by Melissa Ross), and his best friend Rex (Sidney Williams) as a singing narrator who moves the play through the various memories of Jon’s supposed childhood.
Jon is figuring out the details of an episode from the past that Claire and his estranged father Murray (John Glover) have hidden. Though his parents are convinced this episode doesn’t exist, Jon begins working his way through his old tapes and notebooks – in which he recorded every conversation and argument from his childhood.
Where Katz only succeeds is in sending up theater. Jon’s horrifying opus ranges in style from Greek tragedy to Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (complete with the Major General’s Song, albeit with rewritten lyrics), with genuinely bad writing and cast members trying terribly hard to make it work. The rest of the play—all of the family business—doesn’t hold a candle to these few scenes, despite, well, cast members trying terribly hard to make it work.
The fact is that the play outside of the play, though not laughably bad like "Blow Out Your Candles, Laura," is just as weak, and much too long. Though Burstyn, Casella, Glover and company act the hell out of it, it just isn’t interesting, or believable. Glover stands out, if only for the fact that he looks like he’s savoring playing the crude and callous Murray. MacKinnon keeps the piece moving along smoothly enough, and David Gallo’s set, with Dans Maree Sheehan’s lighting, is versatile enough that switching between the “play” and “reality” are clearly delineated.
O’Neill and Williams need not worry. The Atmosphere of Memory won’t be stealing their thunder any time soon.