Dianne Wiest in Memory House(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dianne Wiest in Memory House
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dianne Wiest's performance is almost reason enough to see Memory House at Playwrights Horizons. Almost, but not quite. By turns vulnerable, biting, sensitive, and commanding, Wiest skillfully plays the mother of a troubled adopted daughter. It would be unfair to expect a teenaged actress to match Wiest's talent, and Natalia Zvereva -- who plays her angst-ridden, rebellious teenager -- doesn't have a strong enough script to help her out.

Kathleen Tolan's play has plenty of conflict; mother and daughter fight virtually throughout the entire intermissionless show. But the fight is ultimately one-sided as the mother gets all the good lines and all the character development, not to mention the moral high ground. Initially, the daughter has our sympathy; as a child, she was spirited away from her mother country, Russia, by a well-meaning American husband and wife who adopted her from an orphanage. But given that the girl has been much-loved by her parents (now divorced) and given every opportunity, her behavior seems more like a spoiled teenager's petulance than a young woman's emotional crisis.

The latter is Tolan's intent; the play is set on the eve of the daughter's deadline to finish her college essay. She has been asked to write something from her "memory house," but her memories don't feel as if they are her own. She feels like a foreigner in her own skin. It's a good subject for a play, but Tolan can't get past the generic aspects of the daughter's situation. Family dramas, when they are well done, reveal layer upon layer of emotion; this play essentially turns into a squabble. It ends sweetly, but the characters don't really change.

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Samuel "Shmulik" Calderonin Knock On Wood
(Photo © Yonatan Hamenahem)
Samuel "Shmulik" Calderon
in Knock On Wood
(Photo © Yonatan Hamenahem)
Don't Knock Knock on Wood

Among other things, the 2004-2005 theatrical season will be remembered for the extraordinary volume of one-person shows that were seen on and Off-Broadway. Now we have the first of the new season's solo outings, Knock on Wood. A hit in Israel, where it played more than 1,000 performances, the show has arrived at the intimate 13th Street Repertory Theater, where author-actor Samuel "Shmulik" Calderon sits in a chair and tells his story simply and directly. It's a tale of war -- specifically, the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- told from a very personal point of view.

At age 22, Calderon had the role of a combat soldier in a play at the Haifa Theater in Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out. Rushed into battle, he was befriended by another soldier bearing the same name as the character he had been playing on stage. A bond between the two men grew. The story moves from a personal journey to a universal grasp at redemption; at its best, the play surprises us with sudden emotional spikes, as when Calderon returns from the war and is hugged by his father in a way he never experienced before.

Calderon is not a particularly sophisticated writer (or actor). His text will not remind you of the artful work of Spalding Gray or Eric Bogosian; words and phrases are often repeated in a lumbering, almost amateurish manner. Nonetheless, there is a rough-edged, awkward innocence about the show that suits the story.

Aside from its poignant moments, the play fascinates in that we see the Yom Kippur War from the vantage point of an ordinary Israeli who is shocked to contemplate the possibility of actually losing as the Egyptians cross the Suez Canal and advance across the Sinai Desert. He simply can't believe what he is seeing. It's a humanizing portrait of the vaunted Israeli fighting machine. Overall, Knock on Wood is raw and somewhat heavy-handed, but it still has the power to move us in the most fundamental of ways.

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B.J. Ward(Photo © Natalie Young)
B.J. Ward
(Photo © Natalie Young)
Grin and Barer It

Don't be embarrassed if the name Marshall Barer means nothing to you. The man's greatest success as a musical theater lyricist was his collaboration with Mary Rodgers on the score for Once Upon a Mattress. Some of his other songs have enjoyed modest exposure; for instance, "Billions of Beautiful Boys" (music by Joseph Thalken) and "Beyond Compare" (music by David Ross) have been heard in cabaret rooms from time to time. His most famous work is the Mighty Mouse theme song ("Here I come to save the day ..."), but you probably didn't know he wrote that.

Barer deserves greater recognition, and he's found a champion in singer B.J. Ward. Her show at Danny's Skylight room, titled B.J. Ward Sings Beyond Compare: The Life and Lyrics of Marshall Barer, has one more performance scheduled for Monday, May 23. Ward knew Barer in the later years of his life -- he died in 1998 -- and she offers entertaining, insightful anecdotes about the eccentric lyricist by way of adroitly setting up his quirky, wonderful, entirely original songs. Witness "Shall We Join the Ladies?" (music by David Ross), which almost immediately takes a wildly unexpected turn. Ward has a pleasing voice, great comic timing, and a gift for understatement. Every anecdote and every lyric elicits the desired audience reaction, largely because she is so exquisite a performer.

To be a Barer fan is to be a member of a very sophisticated clique. Among those who were in attendance at a recent show were Michael Feinstein (who did a duet with Ward), George Hearn, Steve Ross, and Barer collaborators Mickey Leonard and Dean Fuller. You'll want to join this club.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]