'The Atmosphere of Memory'

Labyrinth Theater Company, ordinarily so canny about the material it develops in house, misfires badly on its season opener.

Labyrinth Theater Company, ordinarily so canny about the material it develops in house, misfires badly on its season opener. “The Atmosphere of Memory,” by Lab member David Bar Katz, presents itself as a send-up of all those turgid autobiographical dramas by narcissistic playwrights who want to make their parents pay for screwing up their lives. With known names Ellen Burstyn and John Glover as the parents from hell, show is fitfully funny — until it gets serious and becomes the very thing it presumes to mock.

Labyrinth, the maverick company that brought “The Motherfucker with the Hat” to Broadway earlier this year, opens its 20th season in a new home. Re-christened the Bank Street Theater, the 92-seat house in the far West Village is as awkwardly configured as it was when it was known as the Cherry Pit. Set designer David Gallo finesses that drawback here by dispensing with walls and moving around a few strong pieces of furniture (big stuff like leather couches and chairs) to suggest the multiple settings of David Bar Katz’s backstage play about a playwright who casts his mother in his first Broadway show.

Unable to get Julie Christie to play his mother in the production of his memory play, “Blow Out Your Candles, Laura,” playwright Jon (Max Casella) casts his own mother, Claire (Burstyn), a diva who flamed out after a few dazzling seasons as the toast of Broadway and Hollywood. But Jon’s estranged father, Murray (Glover), gets wind of the show and becomes an annoying fixture at rehearsals, baiting his son, insulting his former wife and generally behaving badly.

Preening himself in garish outfits supplied by clever costumer Emily Rebholz, Glover gleefully revels in the boorish behavior of this rude trickster. But the flamboyant personality of a self-dramatizing diva doesn’t suit Burstyn nearly as well. Although she’s quite moving in a solemn monologue in which she recounts her feelings on motherhood, thesp has to force herself to play Claire’s rampaging vanity and earthy vulgarity.

Aside from Glover happily hamming it up, no one else seems to have found a comic sweet spot in this dour production helmed by Pam McKinnon, who has done far better work.

Casella is entirely too earnest as Jon, the narcissistic playwright, and David Deblinger overdoes the angst as the actor who plays Jon in his awful magnum opus. But even Lab stalwarts like Charles Goforth (as the director of the play-within-a-play) and Melissa Ross (as the sister so cruelly maligned in her brother’s play) seem to be off their game.

To be sure, there’s a bit of fun to be had in trying to identify all the theatrical styles, from Euripides to Yale Drama School, in which Jon works. But these pastiche scenes are not staged with much panache, and the satire is ultimately overwhelmed by Katz’s insistence that Jon’s sophomoric thoughts on Truth in Life and Art be taken seriously.

The Atmosphere of Memory

Bank Street Theater; 92 seats; $50 top

Production

A Labyrinth Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by David Bar Katz. Directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Creative

Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Dans Maree Sheehan; sound, Brendan Connelly; original music, Adam Schlesinger & David Bar Katz; production stage manager, C.A. Clark. Opened Oct. 30, 2011. Reviewed Oct. 29. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Claire - Ellen Burstyn
Jon - Max Casella
Helen - Kelley Curran
Tom/Steve - David Deblinger
Murray - John Glover
Shrink/Mike - Charles Goforth
Jack - Paul Kandel
Esther - Melissa Ross
With: Kelly Rae O'Donnell, Sidney Williams.
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