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Theatre in Review: A Persistent Memory (Theatre Row)

Photo: Russ Rowland.

I understand that David Huntington, the protagonist of A Persistent Memory, is confused, but must the audience be lost in the dark with him? Jackob G. Hofmann aims to takes us inside David's fractured consciousness, the better to illuminate the traumas that have left him wondering if, at the age of 30, he isn't suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. A Persistent Memory suffers from David's problems; its mind wanders and it has trouble focusing on what really matters. The action wanders, too, ranging from Uganda to Tennessee to Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut: as plays go, it is all over the place.

David comes from a fabulously wealthy family, handing out money to the needy through the Huntington Foundation. At the moment, however, something is terribly wrong: He has trouble concentrating. He is late for appointments or misses them altogether. He blows up at the mention of his late mother. He can't remember exactly when his brother killed himself. And, to put it mildly, he has poor impulse control.

All of this is revealed in a series of personal and professional encounters that unfold across the course of the play's complicated time scheme, which hopscotches back and forth between past and present. We see David in Uganda, with Olivia, a middle-aged Belgian aid worker who lectures him about the fate of African elephants -- a matter of some import to him -- then beds him. He gets a further briefing on elephants from Kasem, a Thai academic who runs a pachyderm preserve in Tennessee, of all places. Then there's Elijah, David's school friend, whose Ugandan background leaves him trapped in the closet, except when he's making passes at David; Carly, the boozing, drugging classical violinist whose relationship with Elijah is rapidly falling apart; and Marie, the sweet-natured widow who has taken up with David's father, much to the young man's displeasure.

It's not that A Persistent Memory is abstruse or hard to follow; rather, it's that the scenes don't build to a coherent portrait of the canker gnawing at David's soul. As is often the case with such emotionally blocked characters, David is such a cipher that he gets blindsided by his supporting cast, all of whom have much to say for themselves. Furthermore, the script is loaded with plot danglers that never get addressed: Is it significant that David leaps into bed with Olivia, a woman old enough to be his mother -- who is, after all, the source of much of his torment? How is it that, after knowing each other for half their lives, Elijah is still putting his hand on David's crotch, only to have it batted away? Since he can't seem to manage a relationship with a woman, might David secretly return Elijah's feelings? It's impossible to say. Other plot points beggar belief, for example, that David has to tell Marie the details of his mother's death, especially since it took place under such sensational circumstances that it surely rated several spreads in Vanity Fair.

There are other problems, especially the author's attempts at connecting David's research into elephants -- which, the script repeatedly insists, are as emotionally complex as humans -- with his emotional crisis. It's also hard to understand why so many minor characters -- especially the troublemaking Carly -- are given so much time, when David's father and brother -- who figure so centrally in the story -- never appear. And the play's fragmented structure, seemingly devised to reflect David's lack of integration, is undermined when it includes scenes that don't feature him and which include plot points about which he knows nothing.

Under Jessi D. Hill's direction, the search for a clear throughline fails and the performances are highly variable. As David, Drew Ledbetter is at an extreme disadvantage, having been given a role that doesn't really make sense. The ever-professional Lisa Bostnar makes something of Marie, who manages to get the upper hand with David during a getting-to-know-you luncheon. Ariel Estrada hits too many false notes as Kasem, who exists only to fill us in on the elephant problem. Richard Prioleau is generally good as Elijah, although he overplays a bit when begging David to come clean about what ails him. Victoria Vance is charming as Olivia, although the character's interest in David seems highly implausible. Claire Warden comes on strong -- almost too much so -- as the hell-bent for leather Carly, whose character is mostly a distraction.

Hill stages a series of interludes between scenes that feature the characters wandering in the near-dark, enacting key gestures and briefly interacting, a device that becomes a bit tedious with repetition. Parris Bradley's set lays out a number of playing areas inside a kind of skeletal structure that, I think, is meant to suggest elephant bones. It's an original idea but it also alludes to one of the script's most poorly integrated aspects. Greg Solomon's lighting is on the gloomy side, but this is perhaps not inappropriate, given the play's overall tone. Valerie Joyce's costumes are perfectly all right. Miles Polaski has supplied a fairly elaborate sound design, mixing such effects as wind, waves, thunder, ambient restaurant noises, and the thump of subwoofers in a nightclub, along with his original music.

Ultimately, A Persistent Memory is so weighed down with plot points and psychological baggage that it tips over, never managing to right itself. In the end, David's problems prove to be much too easy to forget. -- David Barbour

(6 June 2016)

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