Review: The Memory Exam Imagines a Test for the Elderly with Life-or-Death Consequences
Memory is the coin of the realm in Steven Fechter's dystopian drama.
The elderly have it pretty good in America. Between Medicare and Social Security, the over-65 set enjoys a magnitude of benefits lavished on no other age cohort. And this should come as no surprise: Older Americans are on average richer than their younger countrymen and turn out to vote in proportions that exceed any other group. Some have even labeled our federal government a "gerontocracy," ruled over by a President (79), Senate Majority Leader (71), Chief Justice (67), and Speaker of the House (82) all well past retirement age. But will it necessarily be this way forever?
Steven Fechter envisions a reactionary regime in The Memory Exam, now being performed off-Broadway by Oberon Theatre Ensemble at 59E59. In a time not so distant from our own, Americans will report their elderly neighbors who exhibit any signs of memory loss: a forgotten name, a misplaced credit card, a wrong turn down a familiar street. The reported will then be forced to submit to a memory exam, deceptively simple but with grave consequences. One wrong answer, and the test subject is euthanized. It's like a less sexy version of Logan's Run.
Facing their own exams in three days, Tom (Gus Kaikkonen), Jen (Bekka Lindström), and Hank (Alfred Gingold) have contracted the services of Dale (Vernice Miller), a psychotherapist who knows the format of the exam and will coach them on how to pass it — for a fee. They secretly meet in the woods, away from prying eyes and surveillance cameras, for a high-stakes test prep session that would likely make the average Kumon instructor crap their pants.
The art of dystopian drama is a kind of macabre striptease. You show the audience just enough and let their imaginations do the rest — let them draw the timeline from the world outside the theater and the one grimly envisioned within. Fechter does this well, especially in the hushed mention of PHAWB, the Public Health and Wellness Bureau charged with administering the tests. It doesn't take much imagination to understand that the public heath bureaucracy empowered during Covid, mostly for the benefit of the elderly, could one day be turned against them. We quake beneath our masks at the prospect.
Not unreasonably, Fechter omits the details of this revolution, making his most outrageous contrivance the notion that the old would ever willingly relinquish power. Jen, who used to be the mayor of her town, opines, "Eight years is long enough for any elected official." Did you hear that, Jerry Nadler?
Though its concept is solid, The Memory Exam suffers from a lackluster production under the direction of Terrence O'Brien. More than once I wondered if the actors were playing forgetful characters or actually forgetting their lines (the halting delivery and generally wooden performances suggest the latter). Fight choreographer Bryce Biederman and intimacy choreographer Rebecca Brinkley at least inject some naturalism through their elements by making them as awkward as they surely would be in real life.
At one point, two characters roll around on Tamara L. Honesty's set, the central feature of which is an obviously fake rock formation decorated with the heavy-handed metaphor of autumnal leaves. It provides levels within the cozy confines of Theater C, but not much else. Amy Sutton's contemporary costumes tell us that we're not too far from the present day, while Chuck Hatcher's sound design offers plenty of snapping branches and barking dogs to suggest the perils lurking just offstage. His quiz show music between the play's two scenes (set before the test and after) quickens our pulses and provides a dark commentary on the gamification of everything.
Provocative and occasionally even thrilling, The Memory Exam is a timely symbol of our new age of paranoia, as legislators in Texas and California deputize average citizens in the enforcement of abortion and gun laws, respectively. It should distress us all that the playwright cannot envision a future in which people (no matter their political affiliation) aren't perfectly willing to rat out their neighbors to the state.