Thursday, March 5, 2009

Doesn't ADD Up


Written by Lisa Loomer

Directed by Mark Brokaw

Starring Peter Benson, Shana Dowdeswell, Lisa Emery, Natalie Gold, Matthew Gumley, Mimi Lieber, Aleta Mitchell, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Stamberg

Performances February 7-May 10, 2009
Laura Pels Theater

111 West 46th Street

Nixon in Distracted
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The ultimate topical play, Lisa Loomer’s Distracted concerns a mother’s efforts to find out her son has ADD (attention deficit disorder). In a world of sundry distractions, she finds it increasingly--and frustratingly--difficult to find any specific answers to her question: what’s wrong with my son?

In her play about nannies, Living Out, Loomer showed that she had the smarts and original voice to confront contemporary issues with wit. Distracted is also a comedy, and Loomer finds uneasily funny moments amid her heroine’s serious quest. Too often, though, the humor is not pointed so much as anecdotal, as the playwright finds easy targets to ridicule, i.e., doctors’ office walls filled with impressionist artworks (an O’Keefe painting clues us that we’re in an alternative medicine office), or women’s obsession with buying shoes from the website, because the return policy is so lax.

In an interview, Loomer mentioned all the research that went into writing Distracted, and it shows--too much, actually. Characters like Jesse‘s doctors and teacher expound on ADD with facts and figures that sound more like someone’s term paper or classroom lecture than a real person discussing a real problem. Whenever one of the medical experts starts talking about ADD, Loomer’s research is shown off, but her play stops dead, taking awhile to regain dramatic or comic momentum.

There are many distractions in Distracted: for starters, Mama tries meditation and keeps putting off her designer work in order to “help“ her son, Dad constantly watches TV (on “date night,“ they go to a sports bar for a post-movie dinner, with its many big-screen TVs showing different games for him to watch), and both are ruled by their cell phones and blackberries. Ironically, these situations also prove distracting to the playwright: they allow her, under the guise of presenting her characters’ own inability to communicate, to keep from confronting her story head-on, as if she wanted to avoid penning a penetrating play on society’s inability to deal with anything of importance competently and thoroughly (one reason we’re in our current mess).

Mark Brokaw’s production follows suit, visualizing the distractions of the title in a very literal way. Mark Wendland‘s clever two-tiered set, while standing in for the family’s living room, a classroom, doctors’ offices, among other places, is filled with bric-a-brac of all sorts; large widescreen monitors appear at various times, bombarding us with 24-hour news networks, reality shows, sporting events and talking heads like former President Bush (whom Loomer needlessly kicks in the rear by referring to his actions as a type of ADD). A few of the actors play multiple roles, and stagehands chip in, helping to move furniture and other items on and off stage, including chairs that are wheeled in and pillows that are tossed to the actors. The idea is to give the audience its own dose of ADD, but it could have been done with more finesse.

As Jesse, Matthew Gumley is only seen in the play’s final moments; otherwise, he’s only heard screaming at his parents from upstairs: throughout, he is perfect in his obnoxiousness, which befits a problem child. Josh Stamberg makes a likeably confused Dad.

Cynthia Nixon, an actress of supreme levelheadedness, plays Mama. Nixon--whose character also narrates the story--is winningly charming all through the play, even when she’s losing control in her attempt to save her son. Her beatific expression in the last moments of the play, as Mama watches her son’s small steps toward becoming a normal child once again, is a lovely and quiet moment on which to end an otherwise loud and pummeling play.

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