By Doug Strassler
“Location, location, location” – that’s an adage long associated with New York, but it’s particularly familiar mandate for The Transport Group, who’ve mounted shows in such site-specific locales as a gym (Lysistrata Jones) and a loft (Hello Again). They have chosen to launch their newest work, the Joe Calarco-directed chamber musical The Memory Show, a tale of the bonds that tether an estranged mother and daughter in the cozy confines of the Duke on 42nd Street. And like the relationship between the characters themselves, the resulting production is an intimate yet coldly aloof one.
Sara Cooper’s book examines the relationship between a 62-year-old woman afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer ’s disease and the31-year-old daughter who moves back to her Brooklyn home to look after her. For a long spell, Memory avoids sappiness, but it also avoids specificity. The two characters are named merely Mother (Christine Cox) and Daughter (Leslie Kritzer), and though references are made – indeed, in times, reenacted by and for a fading Mother – to their husband and father as well as past boyfriends, the two women are largely constricted within the box that they live in. (Said box is, theatrically speaking, a tenderly realized apartment designed with skill and specificity by Brian Prather and lit to ominous effect by Chris Lee.)
While Memory runs at a spare 85 minutes, it still feels padded and narratively repetitive. We know little about either character’s personal life or their longings, and so when Daughter bemoans her single, jobless plight as a result of bad luck, we must take her at her word, even when Mother insists she must be a lesbian. Does Daughter have no specific regrets, or compromises? Meanwhile, Cooper’s insistence at having Mother repeat that she has a secret to spill loses resonance the longer this obviously-planted gun waits to fire during the show. It defeats the point of the show, which is the agony of disease. Loss is messy, and Cooper’s script aims for comfort and closure, which makes Memory feel false.
Also sadly, the show’s songs (with lyrics from Cooper and music by Zack Redler), which are almost all to be taken at a literal level, lose luster. Several standouts – the solemn “Apple and Tree,” a comical “Single White Female” – are balanced by more obvious tunes, like “You and Me, Toilet,” whose jejuneness would be forgiven if it added enlightenment on Daughter’s already established difficulty in caring for Mother. These discordant numbers also sound remarkably similar; before long, the songs suffer from familiarity. And Memory is also book-heavy, overly reliant on Cooper’s story to chart the advancement of Mother’s Alzheimer’s (in a fashion that feels a bit too truncated, at that) rather than to utilize the musical numbers to fill in the emotional shadings of the long goodbye.
And so it falls on the dynamic duo on stage to shine light onto Memory, a mission accomplished more by one than the other. Kritzer beautifully navigates the arc of a child who must become the caretaker without ever feeling that she got to enjoy her adulthood, adding dimension to what might otherwise have been a stock characterization of an Old Maid; her every scene aches with frustration without ever getting heavy-handed. Calarco struggles a bit more to rein in Cox, leading the actress to traffic more in vitriol than fragility. But again, the frustration stems from the writing: Daughter has a wide array of emotions to portray, and Mother is limited to instability and unpredictability.
Make no mistake; Memory is a noble effort. It’s far from easy to create non-manipulative art about a devastating psychological illness, and harder still to fill it with serious music. Despite its good intentions, though, Memory is neither yet the complex nor cathartic experience it aspires to be. Here’s hoping several drafts down the road, it finds its place.
The Memory Show
Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Thru May 18. http://www.dukeon42.org
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