Reviewing the ill-fated Woody Allen-Elaine May-Ethan Coen disaster Relatively Speaking, I thought I had seen the worst evening the New York theater season could possibly endure. I was wrong. I had not yet seen a pile of filthy, moronic drivel called The Atmosphere of Memory by a delusional, no-talent writer called David Bar Katz. Spending two and a half hours down on Bank Street at the Labyrinth Theater Co., in the most uncomfortable, makeshift, black shoebox in town (with the worst sight lines), is a new kind of hell. The play is nothing to write home about either.
The only reason to waste more than five minutes thinking about a play this disgraceful is the fact that it stars Ellen Burstyn, a lovely, intelligent, accomplished and award-winning actress who owes us all some kind of explanation. I have no idea what she is doing here, but more about that later. The Atmosphere of Memory is about nothing, but as it rambles into one excessive explosion of filthy verbal diarrhea after another, Ms. Burstyn plays the sloppy, abusive mother of a self-indulgent and profoundly tortured playwright who has written a play about his dysfunctional family, with his own mother playing herself. In the opening scene of what turns out to be a seemingly interminable night of babble, a mental patient named Tom is confessing to his shrink that he earns extra income ejaculating on objects provided by freaky clients such as action figures and fliers for Tea Party candidates. The scene turns out to be merely a rehearsal, the patient is just an actor playing the author, whose name is not Tom but Jon, and the shrink is really the director. It’s a memory play called “Blow Out Your Candles, Laura,” explains the real playwright, because what Tennessee Williams did with The Glass Menagerie, Jon does with his semen spray. Just when you are wondering if this is somebody’s demented idea of comedy, Ms. Burstyn bursts in as the playwright’s mother, a self-indulgent actress who once turned down the lead in Pinter’s The Homecoming because she was pregnant. Now she’s making a comeback, playing the lead in her own son’s play and proving what a lousy and resentful mother she still is by mixing up the roles of Medea and Lady Macbeth in a Grecian toga. Murray, the obnoxious father (John Glover, with a mouth full of chewing gum and falling scenery), appears too, estranged from the family for years after trying to commit suicide, and ranting obscenities that cannot be repeated even in as liberal a newspaper as The New York Observer. But nobody hates the play, or the play within the play, or the miserable real life the play is based on, as much as Esther, the overweight slob of a daughter who bursts in to protest the scene in which she fondles her brother’s penis in the bathtub. Like all writers who tell their stories from their own selfish point of view, Jon is attacked by the people his characters are based on, all of whom come out of the woodwork howling in protest (God only knows what Marilyn Monroe would have said if she had lived to see Arthur Miller’s After the Fall). Eventually, the real people get mixed up with the fictional characters as they all try to rewrite the play, and in the shameless result of purloining Pirandello, nobody can tell the difference. Mr. Katz, who appears to display no originality of his own, just steals from everybody. The result is endlessly talky, and the talk, unfortunately, cries out to be silent.
Since no actor stands out, praise is impossible. They are all directed by Pam MacKinnon like bewildered pedestrians plucked from a passing crowd and forced to read the Yellow Pages aloud. Who can say lines like “You play a role long enough—and well enough—and pretty soon it screws itself to your sticking place” with a straight face? Regarding the two best-known cast members, John Glover’s entire performance consists of spitting obscenities and rubbing his nipples. It’s difficult watching Ellen Burstyn prattling on about nocturnal emissions, father-son masturbation lessons and humiliating her daughter forever after her first menstrual cycle by hanging a bloody sheet from the window with her name on it. The only question worth pondering is why is she involved in anything so disgusting. Are these people personal friends who needed help? Is she a board member of the Labyrinth Theater Company? She doesn’t need the money, and anyway, a play with a single sofa for a set probably doesn’t pay carfare.
In Act II, out come the filing boxes containing a lifetime of transcripts, tape recordings and scribbled notes about how the whole family watched in horror during The Waltons as the father rubbed his penis across Grandma Walton’s face, leaving a smudge on the TV screen. Propriety forbids me to mention what they all did to each other when things really went haywire. Did I forget to mention there’s a guitar-strumming singing narrator between scenes who, it is suggested in the play’s wisest exchange, should be cut? In fact, they should cut the whole thing and they could start with a butcher knife. Instead, this family of ghouls lumbers on, expecting laughs. They get a few, but whole rows of people walked out during the intermission. Some people have all the luck.