As the title promises, memories take center stage in Zach Redler and Sara Cooper's original two-person musical, The Memory Show, a Transport Group production now playing at the Duke on 42nd Street. In this 90-minute play, memories take the form of musical soliloquies. A mother suffering from Alzheimer's disease (Catherine Cox) and her live-in caretaker daughter (Leslie Kritzer) seem to vie for our validation as they perform their recollections and general musings eye-to-eye with audience members. While these numbers neatly (and often poignantly) summarize the characters' feelings throughout play, they leave us aching for something meatier to match the depth and complexity of the subject matter.
The show opens on the "Mother" (Cox), who immediately begins kvetching, like a true Brooklyn Jew, about her doctor and the "fakakta question" he has just asked: "Who's the president of the United States?" We soon learn that this question is not quite as fakakta as she would lead us to believe when she finally confesses her inability to answer it.
The scrim behind her opens on a stunning scene, designed by Brian Pather, where dozens of filled and unfilled picture frames hover over a well-furnished living room in a Brooklyn apartment. They seem to float ethereally through time and space, the empty frames threatening impending doom on the filled. Here, we meet the "Daughter" (Kritzer), who engages in some kvetching of her own (tellingly, to a similar tune as her mother's opening number) about being a "Single Jewish Female" who has sunk to the depths of online dating and personal ads to fill her empty love life. The rant also clues us in on a dysfunctional history with her mother, making it perfectly clear that the choice to move back home to take care of her might have been made lovingly, but certainly not happily.
Director Joe Calarco succeeds in making the audience feel the suffocating monotony of the characters' lives, the only variety available to them being the choice to sit on either the couch or the chair of the Brooklyn living room (not even a close of the scrim distinguishes one day from the next). However, the limits of the space occasionally trap the women in a pattern of taking turns moving to the front of the stage to perform a number, after which they return to their chosen piece of furniture.
These characters primarily speak (and sing) to the audience about each other in the third person as though they are venting to an objective family therapist. As such, we become a garbage disposal for all of their hopes, fears, and of course, memories (which the mother often forces her daughter to reenact for us, always with a heavy Brooklyn accent). While this structure allows the two women to throw an abundance of information our way, it gets jumbled in a mess of feelings and nonspecific stories that never fully sort themselves into a three-dimensional picture of the complicated mother-daughter dynamic.
Both Kritzer and Cox, however, fearlessly commit to their respective characters, and beautifully depict the heartbreak that Alzheimer's brings to a family. Cox draws us into the mother's world and makes us empathize with her terror and confusion as memories slip away with the flash of a picture frame (a powerful concept offered by lighting designer Chris Lee). Kritzer, whose character remains largely two-dimensional throughout the show's first half, comes to life in the second as we see a rigid, list-making woman begin to crumble under the pressure of becoming a mother to her own mother in numbers like "I'm Her Apple." Kritzer's strong performance even makes us forgive Cooper's occasional clichéd lyric like "life doesn't follow the rules." Though Redler's melodies aren't particularly memorable (quite possibly an intentional choice considering the subject matter), they give Kritzer several opportunities to show off her Broadway vocal chops, a treat to hear in such an intimate space.
Even if you leave The Memory Show without a single tune left in your mind, mothers and daughters will undoubtedly be haunted by the daughter's recurring lyric: "I'm made out of her but she's not made of me; I'm her apple and she is my tree." As Kritzer sings those words each night, I'm sure she can look out into the audience and spot the teary eyes of verklempt mothers beside the pale faces of terrified daughters.