In This Playwright’s Dystopia, Forgetting Is Forbidden
Far from any humans who might report suspicious activity, or surveillance cameras that would record it, a tetchy little foursome emerges into a clearing deep in the woods. What they’re doing is forbidden, and if they are caught, they could be killed.
In Steven Fechter’s dystopian thriller “The Memory Exam,” at 59E59 Theaters, the authorities keep tabs on older people’s recollection, abetted by neighbors who snitch on neighbors for lapses as innocuous as walking out of a store and forgetting a purchase. Slip up one too many times and you get called in for a brutally simple test: Remember the five objects they show you and you live. Miss even one and you die.
The three septuagenarians who have followed Dale (Vernice Miller), a psychotherapist, into the woods for this clandestine cram session hope desperately that she can help them strategize their way through the exam, which is coming right up. Tom (Gus Kaikkonen), a retired professor who lives alone and doesn’t notice when he repeats himself, has no idea who ratted him out. Neither do Hank (Alfred Gingold), a retired minister whose recall is the most obviously degraded of this bunch, or his wife, Jen (Bekka Lindström), once a much beloved mayor, who recently became disoriented walking through her own neighborhood.
“Why isn’t the town protecting you?” Dale asks.
“People forget,” Hank says.
That is the crux of this play, which Fechter explains in a program note was inspired by the deaths of so many older people early in the pandemic, and spurred on “when some politicians suggested that seniors should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy.” Directed by Terrence O’Brien for Oberon Theater Ensemble, it’s a show about the value of life, and of memory.
Though the setup is promising, the execution is clunky. When the characters start reciting quotations about memory, we sense the playwright’s voice instead of theirs. Likewise when Jen utters a line that sounds straight out of a male sexual fantasy as she recounts what was clearly a traumatic sexual assault.
And while we might be able to suspend disbelief about Dale’s peculiar mnemonic method — she asks each of the others to resurrect a strong memory and tell the group a corrupted version of it, incorporating the five objects they’re trying to remember — the idea that Hank could wrap his clouded mind around granular detail, as he does in his monologue, is a stretch.
Fechter does build in surprises, though, and suspense. If the play’s convoluted final scene goes on a bit too long, and is not wholly credible, at least you don’t see its resolution coming.
That, unfortunately, cannot be said about Grant MacDermott’s schematic “Jasper,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed by Katie McHugh for Yonder Window Theater Company, the play opens on a quarrelsome, mercurial marriage strained by years of caring for an incapacitated child, whose perilous health is a nonstop emergency.
Andrea (Jessica Pimentel) is the tenacious stay-at-home mom to the offstage Jasper, pursuing every slender thread of hope that he might be healed. For her and her husband, Drew (Dominic Fumusa), who works in construction, normal things like having friends — or having sex — are bygone luxuries. Loving their child, they live in a constant state of red alert. (Sound design, by John Gromada, evokes this potently.)
But while Andrea’s world has shrunk to encompass only home and hospitals, Drew still gets out and about. One day on the subway, he makes funny faces at a toddler in a stroller and falls into conversation with the child’s mother, Shayla (Abigail Hawk), who is beautiful, divorced and tastefully upscale.
She’s not a hallucination, but she does seem like someone’s pipe dream. After she jokes that she’s “a high-end escort,” she and Drew banter flirtatiously about her being a “hooker” and “a whore.” That interaction is of a piece with the entire relationship that will blossom between them, in which she is ludicrously complimentary toward him about, oh, everything.
Drew seeds it all with a lie, though. He’s honest about being married, but when Shayla asks if he has kids, he says no. In spending time with her and becoming a pal to her Tyler — who, like Jasper, is never seen by the audience — he acts out his wish to have a child who is verbal and ambulatory and expressive and well.
Amid all of Drew’s tormented, longing domesticity with Andrea and his furtive quasi domesticity with Shayla (whose presence in Drew’s life Andrea eventually clocks), there is much mention of Tide laundry detergent. Why all the talk of detergent, and why this brand? No idea. In the script, Tide comes up 10 times.
But that is just about the only mystery in “Jasper.” On a set by Michael Gianfrancesco in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater, the play wants to plumb the dark, lonely recesses of parenthood and coupledom, but even its most fraught moments struggle for emotional resonance. The ending, when it comes, is visible from miles away.
The Memory Exam
Through Sept. 25 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Through Oct. 6 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; yonderwindow.co. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.