Off Broadway Theater Review: THE ATMOSPHERE OF MEMORY (Labyrinth Theater Company)

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by Thomas Antoinne on November 8, 2011

in Theater-New York

LOST IN THE LABYRINTH

In Outrageous Fortune, Todd London’s seminal work on the current state of new plays in America, he writes that the challenge is finding a way to remain relevant to the American cultural conversation.  With the high quantity of work currently being launched, streamed, and broadcast on electronic media, and the average DVR loaded down with hours to catch up on, new plays need to be doubly good to earn a place in the contemporary cultural zeitgeist.  Judging by the Labyrinth Theater Company’s production of The Atmosphere of Memory by David Bar Katz currently at the Bank Street Theater in Greenwich Village, new plays in America are currently not meeting London’s challenge for relevance in the American cultural conversation.

The Atmosphere of Memory by David Bar Katz – Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneWe’ve seen this story before.  A troubled playwright comes from a very dysfunctional, hyper-sexual family.  He writes plays to explore the issues in his troubled life in hopes of finding a revelatory moment to explain how his life got so messed up.  He puts his family onstage in his plays (in this case, quite literally, as he casts his mother to play his mother).  Katz cleverly uses a play-within-a-play to give the audience some relief from the intensity of this therapeutic exercise.  He unskillfully throws in a few pastiche nods to eclectic post-modernism, referencing Strindberg, O’Neill, and Gilbert & Sullivan, among others.  In the end, the devices prove to be no more than legerdemain to distract us from a paper-thin plot.  When we see how traumatizing the family is, as they exist in the present, a smoking gun revelation from the past would only be redundant.  Since Katz relies more on standard clichés of therapy than dramaturgy, the effect of The Atmosphere of Memory is not merely unsatisfying, but also very frustrating.

The Atmosphere of Memory by David Bar Katz –  Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneIn spite of the lack of significance in the material, the production, remarkably, has a lot going for it.  Pam MacKinnon’s production presents the play with élan and clarity.  Working beautifully with her designers, they have crafted a sleek world using the clumsy Bank Street Theater space to great effect, even allowing the real/theatrical dichotomy to spill to the vaguely defined corners of the playing space.  MacKinnon directs her ensemble with a light touch.  Even though the show is cast with an Oscar winner, a Tony winner, a former Sopranos star, and a host of Off-Broadway stalwarts, they navigate consistently like a true ensemble.  If there’s a standout performance, it’s playwright/actor Melissa Ross as Esther, the protagonist’s sister.  Ross nicely balances the tough with the tender.  Esther also happens to share the audience’s point of view, always trying to be a good sport indulging the shenanigans in front of her, but in the end she feels hurt and annoyed for enabling the dysfunction.

The Atmosphere of Memory by David Bar Katz – Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneThe program for The Atmosphere of Memory reminds us that the Labyrinth Theater Company was founded in 1992 to push “artistic limits, tell new, more inclusive stories and expand the boundaries of mainstream theater.”  If those elements were on display in Katz’s work, new plays in America would be victorious in the challenge set forth by Todd London.  Until new plays like The Atmosphere of Memory start to take London’s words to heart – and it pains me to admit this – it might be more culturally relevant for me to stay home and catch up on The Memory On My DVR.

photos by Monique Carboni

The Atmosphere of Memory
Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater
scheduled to end on November 20
for tickets, visit http://labtheater.org/

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