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The Atmosphere of Memory

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Max Casella
Photo by Monique Carboni.

The classic artist's axiom "Write what you know" is only effective when you actually know something. For the central figure in—and audiences at—David Bar Katz's The Atmosphere of Memory, which just opened at the Bank Street Theatre in a LAByrinth Theater Company production, things are considerably more problematic when the baseline of self-awareness is absent.

The character in question is Jon Stone (Max Casella). The boundary-breaking playwright has unleashed upon the world what could be his own Long Day's Journey Into Night or The Glass Menagerie: a work that dissects the members of his tumultuous family history and attempts to make sense of the confused muddle that is Jon's life as he proceeds into middle age. Yet the show, now in previews, is falling flat, which is causing Jon, his director Mike (Charles Goforth), and the cast no shortage of distress. As Katz unwraps the circumstances surrounding Jon's psychology, we learn, perhaps too well, the two reasons why this is.

First and least, it's confusing. Jon has conceived it as a dream play, something that only barely justifies the presence of a guitar-strumming narrator (Sidney Williams) who invokes portals into the past, that seems at odds with the subtext-flaunting shards of scenes we see as if peeking through a cracked window into an Ivo van Hove rehearsal, and that doesn't remotely explain why the naturalistic characters Jon insists he's writing break out into musical numbers every 15 minutes. Particularly lost in this is Steve (David Deblinger), the actor who's appearing as Jon's onstage avatar Tom and can find nothing to grab onto in the fractured character that is in no way as naturalistic as Jon violently contends.

John Glover and Ellen Burstyn.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

More important is that there's reason to believe this autobioplay is not exactly accurate. Jon's sister, Esther (Melissa Ross), insists it contains certain events, in most cases about sexual matters, that never happened, a claim that's corroborated by their estranged father, Murray (John Glover). Why then, does Jon's mother Claire (Ellen Burstyn) not object to her portrayal? Is it that it's sympathetic to her concerns of having been abandoned by Murray when Jon was 10 or so? Or is it that she's protecting her own comeback, as she's appearing in Jon's play as herself?

There's something delightfully twisted in all this, and director Pam MacKinnon ensures that it stays sufficiently buoyant and enjoyable as long as the focus is tightly on Jon's trying to align his personal and professional dilemmas. Unfortunately, the play becomes less rewarding the deeper it delves into Jon's psyche; the possibilities of what may be blocking him creatively prove far more interesting than what really is. Worse, the specific revelations don't illuminate the specific genesis for the schizophrenic glimpses we get into Jon's playwriting. Because it's so immediately unclear how Medea, Macbeth, William Inge, and Gilbert and Sullivan could ever occupy a single cohesive theatre piece, this is a debilitating deficit.

Beyond that, however, Jon is such a supporting player in his own story that we never sense that Katz himself has an answer for this. This is addressed during the action, when we learn that Jon derived his script from tape recordings and transcriptions thereof that he made while growing up, always leaving himself offstage. But this issue is itself never addressed, and as The Atmosphere of Memory becomes increasingly about how Jon actively overcomes his decades of inactivity, it grows increasingly frustrating to always have Jon whining on the emotional sidelines. The climactic scene, in which the past and present Jon finally merge, is a complete waste because we've never come to know either one.

Katz has richly drawn Jon's family, and the contrast between the fragile Claire, the explosively coarse Murray, and the hollowed-out Esther is responsible for most of the pull the play has. Burstyn is particularly good at balancing affection with brittle disregard, and Glover is an absurd success as her free-spirited counterpart. Casella hits all the proper marks as Jon, but there's nothing for him to excavate from the character. Ross, Goforth, Deblinger, Williams, Kelley Curran (as Jon's girlfriend), Paul Kandel (as the theatrical version of Murray), and Kelley Rae O'Donnell as an exasperated entertainment interviewer give their all, but have even less to draw from.

What ails The Atmosphere of Memory is also what afflicts Jon's play: It wants to have a shattering impact, but it lacks the gravity and universality necessary to make that happen. For their joint first scene, Jon and Katz have patient Tom recite to his shrink a story about how he was recently paid to ejaculate on a Black Falcon action figure. What does this have to do with the familial abandonment, dissatisfaction, and revenge-taking we later drown in? We never find out. Williams and O'Neill drew powerful effects from the chemistry of everyday people in everyday situations; neither Jon nor Katz has apparently learned that silliness without substance is an instant dramatic turnoff.

The Atmosphere of Memory
Through November 13
Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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