Withdrawals from the Memory Bank

Jonathan Tolins’ first play, “Twilight of the Golds,” caused a strong tremor when it was produced at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1993. A science-fictional comedy, it bounced off the provocative theory that sexual orientation could be biologically determined by analyzing the DNA of the fetus, and dealt with the terror of a New York Jewish family faced with the prospect that they were shortly to become the parents of a “bent” son.

In his new play, “If Memory Serves” (also at the Pasadena Playhouse), Tolins has written a comedy-of-identity based loosely on another topical issue: repressed memory syndrome, which is the temptation to find childhood causes for certain psychic miseries experienced by troubled adults. A number of writers, most notably Frederick Crews, have conclusively demolished this Freudian-based pseudo-theory and demonstrated that psychiatric manipulation and autosuggestion were the underlying causes of cases attributed to childhood abuse. Many of these have since been thrown out of court.

In Tolins’ play, the neurotic young son of a once-prominent, now-fading television star looking for some explanation for his troubled state is lured into a morbid examination of his forgotten past. Aided by an improvising therapist and an ex-girlfriend now turned lesbian, he is quickly sucked into one of the more fashionable trends of the day — namely, self-induced victimization, a tactic by means of which subjects may wallow in self-inflicted traumas and ultimately experience the false catharsis of “recovery” usually, as the play suggests, via media scandals, afternoon talk shows or other highly publicized mea culpas.

Tolins, a young playwright who confesses to having been heavily influenced by television (“My generation grew up with television and to pretend it’s not true is silly”) is himself a good example of victimization. Having been conditioned by endless episodes of “The Odd Couple” and reruns of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” he has developed a literary talent that is saturated in the thin aspic of sitcoms. His characters, the fading TV diva, the troubled son, the alcoholic father, the blowzy agent, the girl next door, are all variations on TV stereotypes we have come to know and abhor.

In this play, the deus ex machina arrives in the guise of Barbara Walters, whose consummating interview with the repentant TV mom brings on the catharsis that neatly resolves the son’s neurotic dilemma and brings about reconciliation. One gets the impression that, for Tolins, a celebrity such as Barbara Walters, because of the charisma associated with TV exposure, is a deific personage — in the same category as the avatars of Greek drama. It’s an unfortunate legacy among the TV generations.

His play is bred from and poised upon a deeply rooted gay sensibility, and that, for me, is what makes it specious. What might have been a plausible drama of familial conflicts peppered with satire and bolstered by a stoic philosophy about ” moving on” rather than allowing the past to drag you down, becomes, instead, a kind of camp cartoon about a young man’s quest for selfhood and the distortions that the past imposes on the present.

Tolins dispenses comic dialogue with the ease of a man who has been weaned on Neil Simon and bottle-fed on Larry Gelbart. His scenes are deft, pithy, pronged and satirically droll — suggesting that, when sated with episodics, he has probably flicked over to “Saturday Night Live” as well. I don’t want these reservations to blur the point. Tolins is a real writer, and the gifts he displayed in his first play have been amply expanded here. His “good ear” is the result of his penetrating eye, and he knows how to toss off solid, literate and crackling scenes — even if he doesn’t yet know precisely how to stack them.

What is “Jewish” in his talent is the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating probes of profound existential questions such as “what is my true identity?” and “what are we really doing here?” — issues regularly agonized over in the films of Woody Allen. But far more prominent in Tolins is the tendency, common among gay writers, to trivialize painful psychic experience and reduce potentially tragic circumstances to light diversions. Throughout “If Memory Serves,” the writer seems to be dealing tongue-in-cheek with both his theme and his characters. The tone and tenor of developments seem to be gently admonishing us not to take things too seriously, and, as a consequence, we don’t.

If this is not the playwright’s intention, then it must be ascribed to director Leonard Foglia’s approach and the acting style adopted by his company. Brooke Adams, as the fading TV star and threatened Mum, is so relentlessly larky throughout that we respond only to her levity, her gravitas being nonexistent. She is almost all outline, and we can color her as we choose. Michael Landes, as her amnesiac son, is wedged into approximately five tones, but within that constricted range manages more subtlety than one might reasonably expect.

In the first moments of the play, Marilyn Sokol, as a caricature of a gossip columnist (she later doubles as a monstrous, yenta-agent), sets the tone of parody that ultimately engulfs the entire cast. The most subtle and comedically polished performance of the evening is given by Bill Brochtrup, as the TV star’s poncing aide-de-camp; he is a little masterpiece of comic timing and judicious restraint. But the whole tone of this production seems to suggest that a clever façade is the best way to deal with inflammatory emotional developments.

The play has two main lessons to teach: namely, that we can transcend whatever traumatic events we may have suffered through to get where we are, so long as we do not prey upon them. Secondarily, that as rooted as we may be in the genealogy of our parents and our family, we are answerable only to ourselves. These and other “messages” contained in this Pirandellic comedy are salutary and eloquently expressed. But as with Tolins’ earlier work, these are schematic truths daubed on the characters’ outsides like graffiti on subway cars, rather than revelations that proceed organically from their actions. We are amused, even regaled, but do not believe.

Charles Marowitz is theater critic for The Jewish Journal