What seems more outlandish: A pie as a metaphor for a mother-daughter relationship or a pie as a metaphor for a play? Either way, a blueberry dessert features prominently in Kathleen Tolan's new play at Playwrights Horizons, Memory House, and like many a botched recipe from many an inexperienced baker, the ingredients here never come completely together.
Tolan's terse dramedy, however, is also not low in nutritional content. It gives you enough to think about to ensure that you'll walk away at least partially satisfied, which, given the breezy nature of the piece, is an accomplishment. And though good ideas do not necessarily a good play make, Tolan has believably woven plenty of them into the fabric of the story of a mother and her teenaged daughter only really becoming acquainted as they're preparing to say goodbye.
It's a slow-burn farewell, the college application process for Katia (Natalia Zvereva), who's procrastinated writing her entrance essays until almost the very last minute of the December 31 postmark deadline. Her mother, Maggie (Dianne Wiest), doesn't want her to throw away her future, but Katia's barely convinced she has a past: Maggie and her husband, now divorced, adopted Katia from a Russian orphanage in the waning days of the Soviet Union, and were able to pass on to Katia only a small box of mementos to remind her of her original identity.
But Katia's life at 18 is about her search for identity, and when faced with an essay question about the "memory house" in which she stores her recollections of the thoughts, experiences, and people that have comprised her life, long-suppressed resentments come flooding out. These are directed mainly toward Maggie, for stripping her of her heritage, and the United States, for the role she perceives it had in the destruction of the way of life of Russia and many other countries. (Katia's adoptive father, a college professor who encourages her to find the "context" for her life, escapes most of her wrath.)
Much of Memory House focuses on confrontations about these kinds of issues; when Tolan reduces them, as is often the case, to the level of "Write your essay / No / Okay, I'll bake this pie / Fine, I hate this country," they're not among the play's more compelling moments. But subtler ideological battles between the fervently liberal Katia and the more conservative Maggie are considerably more provocative: Maggie, for example, challenges Katia's whole notion of "context" with a lengthy, irony-free monologue about one of the blueberries she's using in the pie she's baking.
The speech, delivered with utter seriousness and passion, is a surprising high point of the play. It helps that Wiest lends some credibility to Maggie's golden-brown flakiness with her straightforward and committed performance; she avoids the obvious temptation to play Maggie as herself a clueless or na´ve victim of circumstance. Instead, she grants Maggie a cagey thoughtfulness that makes her numerous little victories, intellectual and emotional, more believable than they might otherwise be. Zvereva displays a great deal of real fire in her line deliveries, but tends to overplay Katia's adolescent shallowness; most of her anger (the character's most distinguishing characteristic) is played very close to the surface.
Zvereva isn't wholly to blame: The problem is also part director David Esbjornson, who hasn't paced the play (with the exception of Wiest's amusing battles with pie crust) well enough to allow the tension between mother and daughter to really build. Tolan also contributes with writing that doesn't always convey her concepts in the most effective or interesting ways. Among the problems it that she's written Katia's lengthier speeches about United States imperialism more as tracts than well-reasoned arguments; while this provides an opportunity for Tolan and Wiest to better stress Maggie's still-strong influence over Katia, it's too easy a way out dramatically.
So is the play's conclusion, in which the two resolve their differences within moments of the play's end. But, however abrupt it may be, it's handled with as much craft as it is brevity: Maggie expresses the depth of her feelings for Katia, while Katia's essay allows her to articulate the agony of never being satisfied with what she knows of herself. This scene, in which the pain of an unknowable identity is examined from two contrasting perspectives, succinctly captures the true spirit of Memory House that Tolan, in the previous 75 minutes, forgot to dwell on often enough.