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A Persistent Memory

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 1, 2016

David Huntington has a problem: He doesn't know when he is. People, places, things, and events are all concrete, but they're as jumbled as kernels in a popcorn maker, and things only seem to be getting worse—pretty much in parallel with his life, which is even more out of control. How David's brain got put through the psychological equivalent of a paper shredder is the closest thing there is to an unanswered question throughout most of Jackob G. Hofmann's play A Persistent Memory, which just opened at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. Sadly, it's not one that's likely to energize you, and it doesn't have that positive an impact on the play itself, either.

This is because Hofmann, with the purest of intentions, has let this plot point dictate the form of the entire play without a believable anchor as to its appropriateness. We first meet David (Drew Ledbetter) somewhere in the murky middle of his saga, on a trip to Uganda, bonding with a Belgian UNICEF worker named Olivia (Victoria Vance), who's worried about a change in the behavior of the local elephants that are no longer able to peacefully coexist with humans. After one encounter several months earlier in which a Brazilian poet was trampled, the offending bull became locked to the memory of the dead man, and was unable to move on emotionally from the place where he died and the feelings associated with it.

Elephants aren't that different from humans in their thought processes, we learn later (earlier?) from pachyderm expert Karem (Ariel Estrada), when David visits him, and Hofmann seems to have set out to prove that thesis correct. David, like the elephants, remembers more than he should, more than is healthy, about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of his mother and brother, and no amount of arguing with his stepmother Marie (Lisa Bostnar), or cavorting with friend Elijah (Richard Prioleau) and his girlfriend Carly (Claire Warden) can change that. Whether anything can is a question that's open enough to propel David's quest into the past (or is it the future?) to discover what demons are blocking him and how he can exorcise them for good.

Unfortunately, David's story just isn't rich enough. A spoiled rich kid who spent most of his early life sleeping around and incessantly spending his father's money, David is not a naturally sympathetic figure, and Hofmann has not provided enough of the kind of clarifying detail that will cause us to care. All the figures most central to his mental anguish—his dad, his mom, his brother—are relegated to occasional mentions in the background, making their impact on his life rather unconvincing. This also leaves Marie to carry the weight for all of them, something she just isn't three-dimensional enough to do. (We know she was married before and that she's absolutely not a gold-digger, but that's about it.)

Structural problems, too, prevent the conceit from working. There's the typical matter of having David "remember" things he couldn't possibly have been there to witness, which happens a few times. But Hofmann also never pulls together the disparate characters and characteristics that apparently exist for no reason but defining David; Carly's erratic behavior, Elijah's stunning (and subtle) admissions of a dark secret, and Olivia's barely suppressed romantic feelings all play crucial roles for no discernible reason, filling up time but not filling out the one person around whom they all revolve. We don't see enough of what makes David such a magnetic, and yet oddly passive, focal point for all these events, and because of that, the play never really catches fire.

Ledbetter does all he can with David, letting him be equal parts likable, mysterious, sexy, and tortured—whatever token trait a scene requires, Ledbetter provides it, but he doesn't link them altogether into a single unified personality any more than the writing does. Bostnar makes Marie appealingly sensitive, if perhaps too much so, since her portrayal leaves little doubt as to what the woman's intentions actually are. The other performers all suffice, but no more than that—their material doesn't allow them the larger-than-life moments that might make them stick out as much in your memory as in David's.

You get a similar sense of confusion from director Jessi D. Hill, as if she's attempting to wrangle a bunch of ideas that just don't add up. The mood has elements of being wistful, of being discordant, of being pained, of being terrified, of being excited—again, all parts of David—but doesn't emphasize the right qualities when they're most needed. The elephant-graveyard mindscape set (by Parris Bradley), lights (Greg Solomon), and sound design and music (Miles Polaski) also work individually, but don't come together as a conceptual whole.

That may be part of the point, just as the catastrophic scene order is: If David can't compose himself, why should the show? But with any play, even the most daring, you need to feel that the proceedings are all under control, and that's an impression that doesn't quite come across with A Persistent Memory. You may well find yourself intrigued by some of Hofmann's ideas, and even occasionally moved by individual components of David's strife. Alas, whenever the action strays too far away from these sure things, you'll struggle to remember exactly what all the fuss is supposed to be about.

A Persistent Memory
Through June 18
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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