In David Bar Katz’s latest play, The Atmosphere of Memory, the play within the play is the thing – well a good part of it. From the first moments, we’re submerged into a strange, oddly dark scene. Tom, a middle-aged man, sits on a modernist divan in the office of a shrink, to whom he confesses that he’s not a professional dancer despite years of sessions suggesting the contrary.
Instead of being a dancer, he’s a professional jerk-off. And I mean that literally; he’s paid by various respondents to online ads to ejaculate on items they select (many of them super hero action figures), and this represents a significant portion of his income (I’m not making this up, folks; he’s further concerned with the notion that jerking off on a brown action figure is an act of racism).
With its initially vague-seeming title and off-putting opening scene, The Atmosphere of Memory elicits dread rather than elation out of the starting gate. Fortunately, Mr. Katz has a metatheatrical twist up his sleeve for patient audience members. We quickly learn that the play we’re watching concerns a play that the play’s protagonist, Jon (Max Casella), is writing, which will also star his mother, Claire (Ellen Burstyn) and feature a stand-in for his father (Paul Kandel) – until, that is, his real father, Murray, (John Glover) bursts onto the scene.
Jon, whose father walked out on his family when he was still a child, harbors resentments toward both his parents. Though his father is still a part of his and his sister Esther’s lives, their family balance is off-kilter. Jon typically sides with their mother, while Esther sides with Murray, citing Claire’s difficult and erratic behavior. As seems common in families with divorced parents, one parent, in this case the mother, has poisoned the children’s view of their father with divisive and resounding results.
Katz’s play is a sprawling, messy exploration of a family rift, featuring grandiose allusions – not only does Katz reference O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night but also Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. As an exploration of grief, it falls into a cliché genre of plays, but what elevates the material here is Katz’s self-awareness of that mode and his attempts to transcend it.
When Jon, out with his company of actors after a performance of the play within the play, boldly proclaims “I’m an atmosphere guy,” his leading man alter ego, Steve, quips, “Well, you’ve captured the atmosphere of nap time.” Fortunately, however, there’s nothing in the play we’re watching to inspire yawns. Besides for the play’s abundance of humor, a uniformly excellent cast has been assembled to embody the real and fictional members of this cracked family.
Max Casella as John, the wounded playwright Jon, provides plenty of humor; he’s a fine center for a cast of skilled professionals. Ellen Burstyn (coolly nuanced as Claire) and John Glover (hot-blooded and volatile as Murray) are the obvious reasons to see the play; as always, they display their ability to leave the stage in tatters after a well-timed barb. They’re matched by David Deblinger as hammy actor Steve and Melissa Ross, who plays Jon’s sister Esther with a wounded grace that allows her character, particularly in the play’s final scenes, to cut to the heart of the matter at hand – whether one can ever really find the truth through art and whether anyone’s memory of something they conceive to be true can ever perfectly match another person’s.
David Gallo’s set, which makes great use of the Bank Street Theatre’s versatile thrust space, allows for an audience to feel as if it’s eavesdropping on the John’s artistic inner workings. We see snippets of his bizarre play in rehearsal (featuring scenes that oscillate between Gilbert and Sullivan patter, Medea, and masturbatory psycho-realism) and snippets from his life, thrillingly, from different angles.
Pam MacKinnon has smartly directed this production so that, by the play’s end, we feel that we’ve taken a demented journey through the life of a family – both the real and on-stage versions. Though the play is by no means perfect – the play within the play is jarringly incoherent and Katz’s portrayal of the wounded son can feel overdone – The Atmosphere of Memory, which draws its title from Tennessee Williams’ production notes for The Glass Menagerie, displays some of Williams’ adeptness for cutting to the heart of families in despair.
Though along the way some missteps are apparent, the play’s final moments ring despairingly true. Burstyn as Claire has always seemed the hero in Jon’s mind, the protective force in his life, but as the play nears its conclusion, Claire makes some difficult revelations about her struggles as a mother. When a mother doesn’t want her son, can she learn to act the part? And when does line between acting like a good mother and being one begin to blur? In exploring these themes, Katz’s play takes a similar journey – occasionally it acts like a good play rather than being one – but, by the end the line is blurred enough that the play leaves an indelible mark.