By Charles McNulty
Times Staff Writer
March 27, 2007
If you're still defiantly checking your BlackBerry, you might want to consider squeezing into your schedule Lisa Loomer's new play, "Distracted," which had its world premiere Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.
The drama revolves around a mother (Rita Wilson) whose 9-year-old son, Jesse (Hudson Thames), has all the symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD). Mama — attractive, kind and near her breaking point — explains that the condition is now known as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But she still prefers the old name because "that's what the comedians and the girl at the checkout counter say, as in — 'Omigod, that was so ADD of me!' " Her tone is jocular, but as she wrestles with the agonizing decision to medicate her child, she's forced to ponder some big questions about the multi-tasking madness of modern life.
The set is fully wired, and all of the characters on it are completely wired out. Television screens flash dire cable news one minute, Tyra Banks the next. A text message could come in at any moment or an urgent e-mail or, worse yet, a telemarketer who phones only to place you on hold. No wonder Mama rarely gets through her morning prayer for serenity. If she manages to get close to the end without an interruption, Jesse inevitably goes on a rampage.
Loomer's great strength as a playwright is the vigor of her highly attuned social imagination. Her dramas chomp on complicated cultural issues that can't be reduced to CNN sound bites. Like a lot of us, she has her political views and isn't afraid to express them. But as a dramatist, she appreciates the many sides of an argument, the different human approaches to what seem to be insoluble dilemmas.
As evident in "The Waiting Room," her ambitious comedy about the imposed notions of "femininity" and its disastrous fallout on women's health, and "Living Out," her nanny drama about class and race in affluent and ostensibly liberal America, Loomer is adept at walking a theatrical tightrope: Passionate about her concerns, she's more meditative than didactic when it comes to her conclusions.
The same is more or less true of "Distracted," a work that tries hard to keep an open mind about its topic even as it relentlessly satirizes the answers masquerading as definitive solutions.
There's a problem, however, with Loomer's handling of her subject. "Distracted" could easily feed a whole week of special NPR reports. But dramatically there's only a one-act's worth of action. For it to succeed as theater, it needs to be either condensed or reconceived with deeper characterizations that can transform a magazine-style testimonial into a riveting multi-character tussle. As it is now, the buoyant theatricality of the piece tries to cover for a shortfall of plot.
"Actually, I thought of talking to you by myself," Mama confides to the audience, in one of the play's many direct-address asides. But she says she couldn't get the other voices — in particular, her husband's — out of her head.
A voice, however, isn't the same thing as a well-drawn character, and Dad (Ray Porter) doesn't amount to more than a differing perspective with a long rebel hairstyle from a previous decade. He's the one who eventually objects to the Ritalin roller coaster. What's so great, he wants to know, about chemically altering a kid with more and more drugs so that he's "nice and quiet" and thus more acceptable to the school system?
Mama agrees that the problem might be society's as much as Jesse's. Imagine the impoverishment if Van Gogh and Einstein had been treated as patients, their minds corrected at the expense of their inassimilable geniuses. Plus, doesn't everyone nowadays suffer from the syndrome? Bringing out her best George W. impression, Mama uses the shifting justification for the current Iraq War to diagnose a presidential case of ADD.
Yet sociopolitical satire isn't going to keep her son from being exiled to special ed. If the pharmaceutical option is looking better and better, it's hard not to sympathize with a woman whose career has become managing her son's condition.
Jesse remains offstage until the final act, yet he's always defying her wishes at the top of his lungs, cursing and screaming as though he were Linda Blair's possessed little brother. The outraged manner in which he announces each scene number — the same shrieking, whining tone he adopts when asked to put on his pajamas — communicates all by itself what parents grappling with this situation must deal with, day after trying day.
The production, directed by Leonard Foglia, initially moves with impressive comic swiftness. But it's not long before it becomes obvious that the thematic material outstrips Loomer's ability to theatrically shape it. In the sputtering second half, in which a variety of medical treatments are sampled, the play shrinks in stature, and the comfort that's ultimately reached seems more sentimental than practical.
Wilson brings a nurturing quality to the role that's authentic and direct. Her portrayal doesn't plead for our sympathy or attention. Rather, she makes us feel as though we're part of an ongoing conversation with a neighbor whom we like but don't feel obligated to in any way. The unassuming naturalness of her performance is a pleasure. Sure, the comedy could be punched up a notch, and she could have investigated the marriage with Porter a bit more probingly. But her heart lights up in the company of children, and there's nothing false about her character's emotional journey.
Bronson Pinchot impersonates a series of doctors with different accents and therapeutic sensibilities to a mostly amusing effect. They're meant to be revved-up creations, and the more they accelerate the more he excels. Eventually he steps out of one of the roles to proclaim, in the persona of a fictional actor, that he wouldn't be where he is today were it not for the way Ritalin allows him to learn his lines.
The supporting cast is generally quite good, especially Johanna Day as a mother with obsessive-compulsive disorder who doesn't share Mama's inhibitions about medicating her kid. Stephanie Berry also tackles a number of roles, the most memorable being Jesse's veteran teacher, Mrs. Holly, who recognizes a problem when she sees one — and understandably doesn't want to be saddled with it in her overcrowded classroom.
As the son, Thames orchestrates his volcanic eruptions so that every grown-up in attendance can experience the household tension at full blast. He's not the only troubled youth — Emma Hunton sensitively plays his teenage baby-sitter with a sad penchant for self-mutilation — but he's the manifestation of our agitated and increasingly angry zeitgeist.
Like Mama, everyone is struggling to find a patch of peace in an increasingly harrying day. On that note, I'd better sign off now. My editor is bombarding me with e-mails.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: April 29
Price: $42 to $55
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Stephanie Berry...Mrs. Holly and others
Bronson Pinchot...Dr. Broder and others
Written by Lisa Loomer. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Sets and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy. Costumes by Robert Blackman. Lights by Russell H. Champa. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager David S. Franklin.
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