Recent news about changes in the format of the SATs had a lot of people reminiscing about good ol’ analogies and fill-in-the-blank reading comprehension questions. Kathleen Tolan’s new play Memory House (which Gothamist saw in previews last Saturday) dredges up another annoying high school rite of passage: the college essay. 2005_05_arts_nataliaz.JPGKatia (Natalia Zvereva, in her NYC debut after graduating from the Fame high school) has to write about what’s in her “memory house” as part of her application to an unnamed college. It’s a much harder task for her than it would be for most people, because, as the play reveals over the course of its humorous, often touching hour and a half, Katia has a rather complicated past.

Memory House takes place on New Year’s Eve day in a SoHo loft (the set, by Loy Arcenas, is spot on); it opens with Katia hunched, looking desperate, on a sofa, Eminem blasting. Within moments her mother Maggie (Dianne Wiest) enters, and is predictably offended by the rap’s assault on her ears. Wiest, whose quirky role in Edward Scissorhands once made Gothamist want to be an Avon lady, is wonderful in this part.

2005_05_arts_dianne.JPGWe soon learn that she is divorced and despondent; Katia needles her about why she doesn’t have plans for New Year’s, and though she responds good-naturedly, she clearly harbors a lot of pain, which she deals with on this particular day by baking a pie. This apparently uncharacteristic activity becomes a metaphor that Tolan uses throughout the play, but it’s not just words: Wiest actually makes the thing, gooshing flour and sugar and lard together with her hands, filling it with “extravagant blueberries” and popping it in the oven, challenging Katia to finish the essay before the pie is done.

None of this homeyness fools Katia, though, who seems to be unflaggingly angry and hostile; when Maggie tries to ask her about how the essay-writing is going and encourage her along, she receives a stream of abuse. Par for the course with teenagers, you might say, and anyway Katia’s thick sarcasm (which her mother responds to in kind) is quite funny to watch. But the issue at the core of these characters’ lives, and of Memory House overall, is that Maggie and her then-husband adopted Katia from a Russian orphanage when she was four or five. Now, after many years of thriving in New York, she feels lost and uncertain of who she is, and the need to write about her life history for an inane college essay is making her emotions boil over. It doesn’t help that her father, a smarty-pants university professor, has been encouraging her to think about her adoption in terms of the US “looting” a broken Russia. Maggie is aghast at Katia’s accusation that the adoption was a form of cultural imperialism, but the seed has been planted in the girl’s mind, and she doesn’t let it go easily.

Although Katia’s tirades about the evil US and her mother’s wrongheadedness (dad gets a pass) are tiresome and often incoherent, as teenagers’ arguments tend to be, they are really the only source of any immediate, provocative message in the play. For the most part it is a fairly gentle story, so despite the anger the mother and daughter bring out in each other, the conflict in their lives fails to feel very consequential. Director David Esbjornson’s staging makes even the arguing seem less fierce than it might: Katia and Maggie are on two different wavelengths, but they shouldn’t seem to be on two different stages, as they frequently do here.

2005_05_arts_memory.JPGEven with these shortcomings, Memory House is good to watch; both actresses seem made for their parts, and there are many laugh-out-loud moments. Unless you were never moody and fought with your mom as a teenager, this would be (hint, hint) a great show to take her to this coming Sunday. As the scent of baking pie wafts out over the audience, you’ll remember how silly all that was, give her a squeeze and vow not to do it again (ha!) and then wonder, as Gothamist did, who eats that yummy-looking pastry at the end of the show…

Details: Memory House is in previews through May 17, opening May 19 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sat.-Sun. 2:30pm, Sun. 7:30pm.