One of the common plaudits tossed at great actors is that they could read the phone book and make it interesting. Well, Dianne Wiest doesn’t dip into the Yellow Pages, but she does make a potentially workmanlike domestic task into an act of joyful, almost anarchic, creativity, baking a blueberry pie in real time in “Memory House.” The unfussy generosity and melancholy warmth with which the actress inhabits a character who uses irony to cushion the frustrations of her life is the strength of this production of Kathleen Tolan’s slight two-hander, itself not much less schematic than any tried-and-true recipe from the pages of “The Joy of Cooking.”
The co-author of that classic kitchen tome, Irma S. Rombauer, is frequently invoked by Wiest’s character, Maggie, and would seem to be a more rewarding interlocutor than Maggie’s sullen teenage daughter, Katia (Natalia Zvereva), a Russian adopted as a child and only now looking accusingly to her mother to assuage her feelings of cultural rootlessness.
Premiered this spring at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., Tolan’s preachy play is somewhat unbalanced by its unsympathetic handle on Katia. In newcomer Zvereva’s perf, the character is all hostile self-pity and adolescent attitude, any real evidence of her vulnerability and genuine need confined to her written words, which Wiest reads at the end of the play.
Set in Maggie’s SoHo apartment on New Year’s Eve, the play is a race to completion between the pie (the aroma of which gradually permeates the theater) and Katia’s college entrance essay, which requires a postmark before the midnight deadline. The essay topic, “What’s in your memory house?,” has conveniently triggered uneasy questions from the teenager, transformed in the opening scene from a cute Russian tyke playing with a red ball on a video to a surly Eminem fan hunched over her iBook, railing about “ripping children off from their bleeding countries” and not wanting to be “a citizen of the country of bullies.”
Tolan’s insights into cultural assimilation, the debate on international adoption and the global imperialism of the U.S. (“It’s the pig of the world”) are no more probing than those of the average angry but not especially well-informed teen, making this in the end just another mother-daughter conflict drama colored by lightweight leftist politics.
Director David Esbjornson handles the real-time realism with a capable light touch, while designer Loy Arcenas has crafted a living room and kitchen setup whose humble, rather indifferent hominess succinctly captures the lack of investment Maggie has made in her less-than-perfect life.
A Tolstoy-loving former dancer whose college professor ex-husband has left their “sagging bed” for “a springy mattress,” Maggie has embraced a thoroughly routine, low-paying office job and a social life that Katia defines unfeelingly as “staying home, weeping at the walls.” Wiest conveys a palpable sense of Maggie’s own lack of fulfillment, imbuing her fear that her daughter will crash and burn with pathos not entirely present in the emotionally underwhelming writing.
As fumbling as she appears in the pastry-making department (“I think we’ll forgo the lattice this time; just kind of plop the strips down rather than truly weave …”), Wiest brings the clarity and focus of an accomplished chef to Maggie. Her slightly uncomfortable deployment of humor, making light of her daughter’s resentment and her irrational need for instant answers to barely formed questions, gives way to her explosion of impatience at Katia’s inability to articulate what she wants from her and, finally, to her inevitable softening as she predictably delves into the “memory house” the girl is unable to access for herself.
But it points to the distancing weaknesses in Tolan’s script that we feel far less for seemingly unanchored Katia than we do for the sad, sweet woman trying to guide her, whose glowing pleasure in the simple achievement of making a sloppily assembled pie (“How finite, how satisfying”) speaks poignantly of the many disappointments in her life.