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"If Memory Serves"

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Elizabeth Ashley, a one-woman tornado who returns in If Memory Serves, has been on our screens and stages for four decades. She shows not the slightest wear and tear as she tears into the role of a fading television diva thriving on dreams and reruns with the appetite of a starving wolf for tenderest lamb. Actually, the play is less about a declining actress than about a mother who used to crawl into bed with her small son. Now a young man at loose ends, the son jokily performs a comedy routine about a child-molesting mom.

Suddenly, all kinds of things start coalescing, and Russell Burke begins to suspect that his mother, the still famous Diane Barrow, actually did molest him, which Stan, her bibulous ex-husband and Russell's father, corroborates. Child molestation or celebrity incest becomes, thanks to a silly gossip columnist, the flavor of the day, and soon everyone, famous or not, busily dredges up molestation memories, most likely fake, for anyone willing, or even unwilling, to listen. Recovered memory of molestation becomes a national pastime, which for a better playwright than Jonathan Tolins might perhaps have worked.

Tolins is remembered here, if at all, for Twilight of the Golds, a Los Angeles hit and New York flop. He strikes me as a lesser Nicky Silver, who is a lesser Tony Kushner, who is a lesser . . . but enough of this daisy chain. Tolins can produce just-tolerable one-liners, e.g., "She hit you with an Emmy Award -- we had to have it replaced" and "Even then we used to say he'll end up in jail or running a network." But don't expect a rounded, full-fledged play from him.

Miss Ashley, I repeat, can put a barrel of monkeys to shame, and Sam Trammell is a sensitive and likable Russell. Among the uneven others, admittedly hampered by the script, Marilyn Sokol manages to stand out, and Leonard Foglia's fluid direction is almost fast enough for our disgruntlement not to catch up with it.


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