The Atmosphere of Memory

Off Broadway at the Bank Street Theatre

November 5, 2011,  2 p.m.

stars: Ellen Burstyn;  John Glover.  playwright:  David Bar Katz    

A good drama should have some humor and a good comedy should have some drama.

This play within a play has an abundance of both, which almost makes it hard to place within a genre.  Ultimately, though, it is a drama.

And a hell of a good one.  This is a new play by David Bar Katz who has lots of playwriting credits.  This world premiere production kept us glued to our seats.  High drama at times, very funny at times.  Invoking Medea, Macbeth, Gilbert & Sullivan, Alexandre Dumas, Ibsen and some references I surely didn’t catch, he shows his literacy.  When one of the characters almost says “Macbeth” out loud they all shush him, playing to the old and surprisingly resilient superstition that the name must never be uttered in a theater.  The characters are in a theatre in their play within a play, but so are we, the audience.  

The playwright, Jon, played by Max Casella of the Sopranos, speaking about his childhood, protests:  “I am just trying to understand what happened.” His father, Murray, brilliantly played by Emmy winner John Glover informs him that he never will.  Words to live by.  There are some truly off-color references, mostly delivered by Glover, that may make your jaw drop, but boy do they work to define the characters. 

Playwright Jon gets his real family together:  father, mother, sister, to breathe life into the script.  He drags out the notebooks of his youth, all of the real things that happened and the words that were spoken and presents them.  Once the family gets into the written and recorded words there is no turning back.  

The play is not polished enough for Broadway and that is precisely what it needs in order to work.  It is not perfect, but who can take the vision of such a talented playwright as David Bar Katz and tell him how to perfect it?  Not I.  I recognize the insight and risk-taking in this play and if Katz takes flights of fancy it is for no one to judge.  All one can ask is:  Does the play work?  The answer is yes.  In spades.  Nothing is perfect, thank goodness, but genius need not be.

The performances are strong.  Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe winner Ellen Burstyn at seventy-nine hasn’t lost her acting chops, and Tony and Obie award winner John Glover is terrific.  Pam MacKinnon’s direction is superlative;  the scene change choreography gets four stars. 

The staging is attentive.  The potentially noisy air conditioning is just run during intermission.  No detail is left unaddressed, and this reviewer notes those things carefully.  Nothing to note here.  No production flaws.  The lighting in unnoticeable.  Know what that means?  It is excellent. 

When Murray says:  “I am just being honest,”  his daughter Esther retorts:  “The battle cry of the a-hole.”

Maybe he is, but he is being honest.  Are all truthful people relegated to the category of a-hole?  Or has political correctness somehow corrupted honesty even as it spares some feelings.  Perhaps honesty has more of a place in this world.  Enough philosophy.  If you like good theatre then what are you waiting for?  Buy a ticket.