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A CurtainUp Review
If Memory Serves

Life's just too damn long. That's why everyone is so obsessed with James and Marilyn. They got out in time and didn't need to live a regular life
--Diane Barrows, an actress who knows what she's talking about, having outlived her years of glory as America's favorite TV mom and now scrabbling to regain some toehold on her sagging career.

I don't seem to have the tools to be happy -- to know how to love
--Russell, Diane's son
I would teach you those things but God never gave me the lesson plan --Diane
Since God couldn't be there to help Diane reinvigorate her career and help her son get a life, playwright Jonathan Tolins comes to the rescue. As he did with his first play, he uses a trendy gimmick dramatic. In The Twilight of the Golds a pregnant woman has herself tested for a gay gene. This time around Tolin uses recovered memories of childhood abuse to stir up a scandal which in our gossip obsessed culture can put even a long unemployed actress back in the limelight. Unlike Twilight which mercifully disappeared quickly from the Broadway stage (though it reappeared as a tv movie), If Memory Serves is often funny and entertaining despite its self-consciously savvy plotting. The main reason to see it, however, are Elizabeth Ashley and Sam Trammell and the six other excellent actors.

Ashley is the most fully developed character. Her Diane Barrows often plays the game of reliving memories of happier days by watching replays of her old TV hit show. But Diane is no Norma Desmond wallowing in past glories. She may bitch about the irreversible onslaught of age and its corrosive effect on her career, but she's willing to do what's needed to remain a contender. When we first meet her she's plugging a low impact video she's produced to gossip columnist Linda Simmons (Marilyn Sokol). Later she pushes her agent Helen Menken (also played by Sokol) to get her a deal doing a remake of Mildred Pierce -- in which her loyal gay assistant Paul Michael (Jeff Whitty) proposes to play Mildred's mean daughter Veda.

But the video and the planned remake are quickly forgotten when the recovered memory game catapults Diane back into the news and puts us front and center into the self-absorbed, fame obsessed, gossipy show business culture to which Tolins has tacked plot pièce de rêsistance. .
(Photo of Elizabeth Ashley and Marilyn Sokol by Joan Marcus).

The scandal which turns America's once best loved TV mom into a "Mommy Dearest" begins when Russell visits Javamagila. Patrons of this neon lit Starbucks à la tinseltown are encouraged by Russell's former (former because she's now a Lesbian!) girlfriend, performance artist Pam Goldman (Melanie Vesey), to "Break the Cycle." To do so they act out the repressed memories of abuse as a result of which their lives became one big mishigas. (Note to non yiddish speakers: a megila is a long drawn out story and mishigas is craziness). This prompts Russell to take the mike and turn Pam's mission on its head by going into a whole megila about his happy childhood.

But our culture knows no fervor more ardent than a zealot scorned and so Pam convinces the floundering Russell that his allegedly happy childhood has everything to do with his current state of discontent. This leads to a second and widely publicized megila in which Russell spills a few beans about mom's throwing her Emmy at him and spending more time in his bedroom than called for by ordinary motherly affection. It also brings Russell to the couch of Dr. Margaret Thurm (Lynda Gravatt). Gravatt doubles as the specter of the family retainer of Russell's childhood ( though not without a humorous protest from her doctor alter ego that she didn't go to school for ten years to play his maid).
(Photo of Elizabeth Ashley and Sam Trammell by Joan Marcus).

To add to this volatile human mix there's Russell's dad (Tony Campisi) who's recovered from substance abuse but not the grudges he harbors towards his ex-wife; also Diane's sexy and, of course much younger, lover (Ron Mathews). Clearly, deft direction and performances are going to be needed to wring enough laughs out of this zany situation and at the same time invest the characters with some credibility and sympathy. Fortunately, director Leonard Foglia and the cast prove themselves up to the challenge.

Ms. Ashley brings the right mix of glamour, every day common sense and vulnerability to the starring role. Mr. Trammell continues to deliver on the promise shown in earlier appearances, especially the Lincoln Center revival of Ah, Wilderness. Marilyn Sokol comes close to stealing the show -- both as Linda Simmons, the gossip columnist with an uncanny ability to remember and twist everything she hears into juicy tidbits and as Helen Menken, a tough Hollywood agent. Jeff Whitty also goes far towards rescuing a stock Judy Garland adoring gay man from his stereotypical frame. Lynda Gravatte whom Les Gutman found marvelously at home in her role in The Old Settler is equally so in her dual role.

Michael McGarty's simple unit set handily conveys the shifting scenes -- a New York restaurant, the agent and therapist's office, Russell's apartment and, of course, the Javamagila. Ilona Somogyi has appropriately outfitted everyone, especially Ms. Sokol.

While I hardly think If Memory Serves will provoke much in-depth reflection about the cult of celebrity scandal mongering and the practice of nudging memories into questionably helpful recall, it's likely to hang around its home in Zabar-Fairway country for quite a while. Rather than being a spoiler and telling you whether If Memory Serves serves up a happy or reasonably happy ending, I'll close with this quote from Emily Dickinson:
The Past is such a curious Creature
To look her in the Face
A Transport may receipt us
Or a Disgrace

by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Starring: Elizabeth Ashley
With: Sam Trammell, Tony Campisi, Lynda Gravatt, Ron Mathews, Marilyn Sokol, Melanie Vesey and Jeff Whitty.
Set Design: Michael McGarty
Lighting Design: Russell Champa
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Sound Design: Laura Grace Brown
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Promenade Theatre 2162 Broadway (at 76th St.) 239-6200
Performances from 11/26/99 ; opening 12/12/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/10/99 performance

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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