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Theater Review: "Memory" Serves Up Deft Satire

(c) Los Angeles Times

September 22, 1998

By Don Shirley

It's hard to remember the last time a funny, provocative comedy set primarily in L.A. premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse. Then again, memories play tricks--or so says the playwright who has finally ended the aforementioned drought.

In Jonathan Tolins' "If Memory Serves," which opened Sunday with a bang, a mother and her newly adult son try to remember whether she abused him. Because she's a former TV star, this is no leisurely trip down memory lane. They're pressured by the glare of the national spotlight.

"If Memory Serves" satirizes a culture that honors but also exploits victims--especially the Hollywood branch of that culture. Tolins acknowledges that some adults treat some children badly, but he shows that the effort to make family abuse an easy explanation of people's problems, or a dramatic story for the media, leads to abuses of its own.

Most of the narrative snaps into place swiftly, laced with big laughs that belie the potential seriousness of the subject. But the ending isn't clear or convincing. Tolins criticizes the need for artificially satisfying denouements of real-life stories, but this is fiction, and the current ending's fuzziness won't do.

Still, Tolins is far ahead of where he was with "The Twilight of the Golds," which premiered in 1993 at the Pasadena Playhouse. The problems with that controversial play were deeper. The premise of "If Memory Serves" is likelier and its comic tone more consistent.

It's getting a crackling staging by Leonard Foglia, with a shiny, sleek Brooke Adams as the mother and a performance by Michael Landes that makes the son more sympathetic than any cold analysis of his behavior would have you think. Michael McGarty's flexible, hard-edged set and Michael Champa's volatile lighting help steer the action.

We begin in New York, as Diane Barrow (Adams), who played a beloved single mom in a seminal '70s sitcom, is lunching with a gossip columnist (Marilyn Sokol). Diane's hawking her exercise video, but she uses the occasion to vent about her has-been status, to wish that "something momentous will happen."

She gets her wish. After returning home to L.A., Diane is assaulted by the same columnist's report that her son Russell (Landes), while doing a solo performance at a local club, has recalled incidents that appear to make America's mom look more like Mommie Dearest.

Actually, Russell is equally surprised by the incendiary column. In his performance, he was mocking his own lack of artistic focus, blaming it on his relatively happy childhood and heterosexual white male perspective, sardonically casting about for incidents of parental abuse that he might be able to use as the raw materials of art.

But once the story is out there, people want to use it--beginning with Russell and Diane, who delay their denials in the hope that a properly managed public response might help their careers get started or restarted, respectively.

Russell's bitterly divorced father Stan (David Groh), a TV producer whose career was drowned in alcohol, senses an opportunity to strike back at his ex and to produce his own TV movie. So he raises questions in his son's mind about whether there might not have been some real abuse.

Russell's therapist (Paula Kelly) offers to assist her patient in his search for his past with daily sessions and doses of truth serum. His lesbian ex-girlfriend (Pamela Segall Adlon), who was indisputably a victim of real abuse, hopes Russell will not only uncover something for his own good but also for the good of abuse victims everywhere. Diane's agent (Sokol, hilarious in two different, equally juicy caricatures) stands to profit from whatever TV treatment of the story Diane develops.

Three characters, however, resist the bandwagon. Diane's younger lover (Steven Culp) is appalled. Her personal assistant (Bill Brochtrup), a gay man who once helped put an abuser behind bars, remains loyal to Diane, counseling caution to Russell on the dubious grounds that Diane's status as a national icon should make her exempt from the rules. Finally, Diane's late housekeeper (Kelly) returns to Russell in a dream to help him sort out his priorities.

This dream is a bit hazy, but the greater problem with the ending is that Tolins won't tell us what was said on a Barbara Walters interview that looms as the drama's pivotal point. This makes it hard to gauge how we're supposed to interpret the final scene. A brief scene in which Tolins introduces a last-minute love interest for Russell is contrived and lame, a far cry from the first three-quarters of this sharp comedy.

"If Memory Serves," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 25. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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