Jonathan Tolins takes a step backward in the right direction with his brand new comedy, “If Memory Serves,” at the Pasadena Playhouse, the venue that also gave us the world premiere of his last play, “The Twilight of the Golds,” in 1993. It’s impossible to imagine “If Memory Serves” getting a better production than this one, and the cast under Leonard Foglia’s superlative direction is never less than razor sharp in their portrayals. They’re always funny when they’re supposed to be funny, and when the play calls for them to be profound, well, they don’t put us to sleep.
Fortunately, Tolins isn’t trying to be very deep much of the time. That’s where he went woefully wrong with “The Twilight of the Golds,” which simply turned pretentious with its allusions to “The Ring of the Niebelungen” and it’s terribly wrong-headed gay politico text.
“If Memory Serves” is much breezier — so light and airy and delightful, in fact, that occasionally it seems to be the pilot for a TV series all dressed up as a full-length play.
“If Memory Serves” is both of and about television: Diane Barrow (Brooke Adams) is an over-the-hill TV star from the 1970s whose son Russell (Michael Landes) can’t get his life together because he’s the son of a celebrity. She once tossed an Emmy Award at him when he was an impressionable child, though Diane’s then-husband Stan (David Groh) was the true object of her disaffection. But Russell doesn’t remember it that way, if he remembers it at all when talking to his new psychiatrist (Paula Kelly).
Faster than you can say CAA, everyone involved gets the idea that this news could get Diane an interview with Barbara Walters and possibly be her ticket to a TV movie.
This isn’t exactly new turf Tolins is tearing up. It was ripe for parody way back when “Mommie Dearest” first hit us with the cruel truth that, at heart, all stars really are Norma Desmond.
“Everyone is obsessed with Marilyn and James Dean,” Diane tells a gossip columnist, “because they got out.” A moment later, when she is called an icon, albeit it a tragically aging one, she can only cry, “It makes me feel like a yellow smiley face.”
Tolins is pointing a big finger at himself here and elsewhere. “We don’t have a culture anymore,” someone says to no one in particular. “We have pastiche.” And while they’re all on the subject, another character blurts out, “If T.S. Eliot were alive today, “The Waste Land” would be filled with cultural references to ‘My Mother the Car.’ ”
Other than that slip, Tolins leaves high culture — including Richard Wagner, mercifully — out of it. But boy, does he know his Grand Dame movies. Diane’s hope for a comeback is a remake of “Mildred Pierce.”
This is fun, frothy stuff — as they used to say of early Neil Simon — but the cast at the Pasadena Playhouse takes all this effervescence and makes it downright memorable. In one flashback, Brooke Adams wears Mary Tyler Moore’s hair band and miniskirt, but her portrayal is far stranger than any mere Mary Richards parody. All perky dementia, she finds this weird common ground for Judy Garland to slug it out with Sally Field.
Bill Brochtrup is the epitome of obsequious strength, if such a thing exists. Marilyn Sokol goes over the top and deep into the gutter to wrestle with the dual roles of the gossip columnist and an agent. And Landes performs a minor miracle and never bores.
Everyone else is wonderful too, including Groh as the TV producer ex-husband “who’s moving into features” at the age of 60, Pamela Segall Adlon as Russell’s lesbian ex-girlfriend (“if you’re not in recovery, you’re in denial”), and Steven Culp as Diane’s young stud lover who plays her son in the TV movie version of her life.
If only Tolins’ ponderous side hadn’t gotten the better of him when it came to writing the psychiatrist role, played here by the valiant Kelly. A moratorium should be called on shrink characters we’re supposed to take seriously when they say, “You’re uncomfortable because you’re moving to another place,” and that old standard, “There are no answers.” Tolins may be trying to say something about our culture of victimhood, but this quick-route character development only makes victims of the audience.
The appropriately chilly, monumental set is the work of Michael McGarty. His design is worthy of Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead,” but there we go again, reducing everything to mindless kitsch.