The Atmosphere of Disappointment

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


In
the last quarter of her life, blues singer Libby Holman took to muttering, “It’s
not good enough, it’s just not good enough” at every opportunity, which is just
the kind of melancholy factoid that sticks in one’s memory. This past week,
Holman’s sentiment was particularly apt, as both The Atmosphere of Memory and Milk
Like Sugar
opened Off-Broadway. Neither show is good enough—not nearly good
enough. —

The Atmosphere
of Memory
,
produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company, has a lot going for it on paper.
LAByrinth has made a name for itself over the last few years with edgy fare
(they brought The Motherfucker with the
Hat
to Broadway last season), and this behind-the-scenes look at the making
of a memory play boasts Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn and stage favorite John
Glover in its cast, under the direction of the usually better Pam MacKinnon.
But David Barr Katz’s play fails on almost every level.

Already
in previews with his new play Laura, Blow
Out Your Candles
(the title is a reference to The Glass Menagerie, which proves that Katz doesn’t have sense
enough to avoid comparisons to better plays), playwright Jon (Max Casella)
starts furiously rewriting his three-hour-and-40-minute opus. “You consider
this to be your Long Day’s Journey Into
Night
,” his girlfriend says at one point, though the comparison seems
ludicrously ambitious given what we see of his play. His actress mother Claire
(Burstyn) is playing herself in his thinly veiled autobiographical screed,
which includes scene-length homages to Strindberg, Medea and Gilbert and Sullivan. In what must be a lowpoint for her,
Burstyn spends one scene in the play within the play singing, “Making a baby,
making a baby,” during the conception of Jon’s stand-in, Tom.

The
real crux of Atmosphere of Memory,
however, comes when Jon dumps notebooks that he filled with transcriptions of
the conversations he recorded during his childhood. Settling in for a long
night’s journey into day with Claire, Jon’s sister Esther (Melissa Ross, whose
annoyed performance seems indicative of how she feels about the play in
general) and Jon’s until-recently estranged father Murray (Glover). As it turns
out, not even word-for-word transcriptions are free from Jon’s mania for
workshopping and rewriting; not that it matters, since, as Esther points out,
none of them remember the actual events anymore. They just remember Jon’s
revisions of their shared past.

Since
what little we see of Jon’s play is as atrocious as The Atmosphere of Memory, what, exactly, is Katz saying? That even
bad art is difficult to create? That memory is a mutable thing, flexible to the
whims of those who remember? Mary McCarthy said that first (and better) in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Flashy
zingers and stylish performances—Glover’s turn as the narcissistic Murray
belongs in a far better play—aren’t enough to disguise the emptiness at the
core of Katz’s script, which is as false about the world of the theater as it
is about human behavior.

Equally
false, if blessedly briefer, is Playwrights Horizons’ production of Milk Like Sugar, an unfortunate stumble
in what has been an impressive run for them—though perhaps their co-producers,
Women’s Project Theater and La Jolla Playhouse must shoulder some of the blame.
Theater for audiences who suffer from ADD, playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s play
touches on several explosive topics and then briskly moves on before their
fuses can ignite. Set over the course of a week, Milk Like Sugar finds high school friends Annie (Angela Lewis),
Talisha (Cherise Boothe) and Margie (Nikiya Mathis) plotting their pregnancy
pact. Babies will love them unconditionally, they say repeatedly, and besides,
having a baby automatically guarantees them a Coach diaper bag.

Before
the fallacy of that thinking can sink in, Greenidge has switched gears to an
exploration of socio-economic unfairness, as Annie warily circles a potential
baby daddy in the ambitious high school senior Malik (J. Mallory-McCree).
Malik, however, is quickly dispensed with after some heavy-handed symbolism
involving a telescope—Annie can’t see past her situation, so she knocks it over
in a fit of playwright-induced rage—and new student Keera (Adrienne C. Moore)
steps into the ring with the promise of a better life via Christianity and
spirituals. But Keera doesn’t have much more luck, and after a painful
confrontation between Annie and her stymied mother (Tonya Pinkins, phoning it
in with a cigarette clamped between her lips as the world’s least believable
smoker), Annie acts out with the dreamy tattoo artist who inked her with the
flame that she feels inside her.

Thanks
to the telegraphed ending, there are no surprises in Milk Like Sugar, only mild diversions in seeing the precise way
that Greenidge gets from Point A to Point B. Life for Annie and her friends
isn’t as simple as it was back in junior high school, they say, when they’d
wear different colors of lipstick and give the boys blow jobs. Now, the future
looms menacingly, and Annie, at least, isn’t sure what it will bring for her.
All she knows is that she doesn’t want anymore of that powdered milk that looks
like sugar; she wants some genuine, Vitamin D-fortified dairy.

With
the exception of Boothe, who taps into some unsettling fury as mean girl
Talisha, and Moore’s
sympathetic, quiet performance as the put-upon Keera, none of the cast can
surmount the bad writing. Lewis smoothly transitions between the three emotions
she’s called upon by director Rebecca Taichman to portray, but her thin,
untrained voice doesn’t have the power to convey Annie’s terrified frustrations
with life. Everyone else takes their cues from the play’s title: Instead of
genuine people in recognizable situations, they’re sugar-like milk,
impersonating a reality that pricks at liberal consciences without leaving a
mark.

The
Atmosphere of Memory

Through
Nov. 13, Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank St. (betw.
Washington St. & West Side Highway), www.labtheater.org; $45–$50.

Milk
Like Sugar

Through
Nov. 20, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd
St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.),
www.womensproject.org; $55.

..