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Theater Review: Promising "Memory" Falters

(c) Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)

September 25, 1998

By Reed Johnson

Troubled mama's boys are nothing new in the theater. They've been with us since Sophocles.

Yet, even Oedipus might conclude that the unexamined life isn't so bad after all, if he had to face the dilemma confronting Russell Burke, the troubled hero of Jonathan Tolins' ambitious but erratic new play about the culture of victimology, "If Memory Serves."

As the son of "America's sweetheart," sitcom actress Diane Barrow, Russell grew up in the shadow of his mother's iconic image and the drinking problems of his father, Stan, "the Willy Loman of first-run syndication."

Now, with his own writing career foundering and midlife closing in, Russell feels strangely unfulfilled and restless. Could his malaise stem from his close - perhaps dangerously close - childhood relationship with his adoring mother? Is the perky, still-youthful Diane really a monster of Norma Desmond proportions? And if Russell decides to blow the whistle on his Mommie Dearest, will Middle America ever forgive him?

These questions, along with the hot topic of "recovered memory," frame the second of Tolins' works to be birthed at the Pasadena Playhouse following "The Twilight of the Golds." Tolins' latest serves up another contemporary moral conundrum, couched in a writing style that careens from literate, aphoristic repartee worthy of Noel Coward to clunky platitudes and scenes that are alternately convincing and contrived.

The play opens promisingly with Diane (Brooke Adams) meeting over drinks with a catty sob-sister gossip columnist, beautifully played by Marilyn Sokol. Though her bouffanted, '70s sitcom character lives on in reruns, Diane badly needs a professional boost akin to the sexual jump-start she's been getting from her hunky actor-lover Taylor (Steven Culp).

To say the least, Russell (Michael Landes) feels ambivalent about his mom's new beau, who's young enough to be his own twin. But that's only the start of his tsuris.

Shortly after he begins seeing a therapist (Paula Kelly), who pledges to "deliver him to a new state of being," Russell agrees to appear in an open-mike benefit for abuse victims organized by his lesbian ex-girlfriend (an angrily funny Pamela Segall Adlon). When Russell off-handedly mentions the nuzzling affections Diane showered on him as a child - glibly observing that it's his only claim to being anything other than a dull heterosexual white male - he unleashes a scandal that sets tongues wagging on both coasts.

After initially reacting with outraged horror, Diane implausibly buys Russell's argument that this is just the career break she needs. But as mother and son collude to cash in on the uproar, more evidence bubbles up through Russell's medicinally induced flashbacks that Diane's maternal instincts weren't always so, well, motherly.

Tolins offers plenty to chew on here: the way individuals can be blindsided by changing social mores; celebrity's tendency to devour its offspring; the way performance functions as therapy, and vice versa; and the difficulty in making sense of a world where millions of competing "narratives," from Freudian psychotherapy to tabloid gossip, clamor for attention.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have quite the right tools or performers to pull it all off. Landes' Russell, while sympathetic, is too much of a cipher. Adams, an impressively straightforward actor, seems miscast here. Her wholesome looks and upbeat demeanor make it hard to conceive of her as the manipulative harpie Russell's embittered father (David Groh) makes her out to be.

Her portrayal, like Leonard Foglia's otherwise crisply directed production, lacks a critical ambiguity that would make the characters' conflicting memories jell into a truly troubling "Rashomon"-like perspective. The standout performance here is Bill Brochtrup's rendition of Diane's blithe, openly gay assistant Paul, who rises above the surrounding madness by treating life as one big "Mildred Pierce" remake.

Tolins is a rare commodity: a tart, smart writer with a taste for tough subjects. But his dialogue gets bogged down with Hollywood in-jokes and predictable allusions to (groan) Judy Garland. He's still struggling to fold his considerable comic insights into a plausible, self-contained worldview.

The vision is there. Now Tolins needs to keep it from getting lost in his constant switchovers from earnestness to flippancy, and the background buzz of camp cliches and old-movie references.

"If Memory Serves." Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; through Oct. 25. Tickets: $13.50 to $42.50. Call (800) 233-3123. Our rating: Two and One Half Stars.

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