The physical production of the Mark Taper Forum premiere (through April 29) of Distracted, Lisa Loomer’s comedy about contemporary parenting woes, seems to be trying to get the script’s attention. Elaine J. McCarthy’s set, a kind of pop-up-greeting-card with diamond vision, screens a furious pre-show montage of media images that accelerate, crescendo, and stop for the play to begin. It suggests that 9-year-old Jesse’s meltdowns may be partly caused by our daily bombardment of sensory stimulation. Certainly his parents have problems communicating between the distractions of incoming calls, digital programming, and other modern conveniences.
Here in Los Angeles (A.K.A. television city), that “media is the menace” message goes in one earphone and out the other. Despite a stage festooned with cell phones, remotes, Blackberrys, video game controls, big screens, and the like, media overload is not among the suspects fingered by Distracted. Instead, the latest effort from the author of The Waiting Room makes its case against genetics, diet, chemical imbalance, and parental inattention. In the script's defense, it does provide two entertaining hours of distraction. – even if, wanting to be both SNL and Frontline, it exhibits a little bi-polarity of its own.
This is the third issue-oriented comedy with a central female character from Ms. Loomer. She began with Expecting Isabel (about having a baby), followed with Living Out (about having a caregiver), and now offers this play about having a hyper-negative child. After too many calls from teachers at wit's end, and too many days that feel endless, Jesse's mother, played by Rita Wilson, is compelled to have the child tested. She learns that what's behind her son's mood swings, which register their narrow arc on the Don Rickles-Lenny Bruce Scale, is Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD.
If that sounds too syndrome-specific, Ms. Loomer is just using it to get at a more basic parental conundrum: how to balance a child’s need for self-expression and growth with the discipline needed to keep him from becoming a self-centered ass. For those interested in dissecting the clinical side of Distracted, the program offers an excerpt from The Last Normal Child by Dr. Lawrence Diller. What’s coming off the stage, however, may do greater good as a diversion than as dissection.
In this slick staging by Leonard Foglia, back at the Taper after his hugely successful turn introducing McNally’s Master Class, the first asset is its cast, lead by Ms. Wilson. As our genial guide down the rabbit hole of guilt and confusion, Ms. Wilson is always on stage. She keeps her character engagingly funny, always real, and always watchable. While she has to be the punch line for a series of goofy specialists, then punching bag to her humorless husband (played by Ray Porter), she also has to stand and deliver her own one-liners. She performs all these operations seamlessly.
For his part, Porter must portray the spouse who refuses to buy into anything his better half attempts. His is a kind of knee-jerk, anti-authority stance that leaves him too much jerk and too little kind. Given that, it's ironic that he is vindicated when, to an inverted hip-hop take on Tom Hanks' keyboard dance in Big, Jesse's turnaround shows Dad's foot-dragging to be what protected his son's integrity. (If he'd only been there for Randall P. McMurphy and Elwood P. Dowd.)
Bronson Pinchot and Stephanie Berry stand out as they run characterization marathons of four or five identities each, with a Berry quick-change that would confound Copperfield. Those multiple assignments, however, leave Marisa Geraghty and Johanna Day with little to do as neighbors. Day nevertheless manages to show her acting chops in tiny scenes as an obsessive-compulsive busybody, eliciting congratulatory applause on each of the first three of her four or five exits. Hudson Thames provides the major minor role, with Emma Hunton sympathetic as a troubled teen.
Another asset is McCarthy’s cinematic slide show that, beyond its pre-show and intermission duties reminding us of how intrusive media has become, provides evocative still-photo backdrops. One close-up of a chipped dinner plate, snug in its stack, presages the play’s ultimate message of acceptance.
Finally, Loomer and Foglia have threaded the show with a healthy dose of irreverence for theater convention. Character-dropping asides that blur the actor-role divide further the effort to decriminalize ADD. It’s a reminder that this Public Service Announcement about Attention Deficit Disorder is brought to you by People Who Have It.
All in all, it’s a fun night of well-produced theater that cautions not to be too quick to medicate those quarrelsome kids. Its message for parents is tolerance. The best hedge against our children getting Attention Deficient Disorder, Ms. Loomer feels, simply may be “paying more attention to our children.” Of course, those whose post-show calm will be broken upon the threshold of their own homes, where their children lie ready to disobey any logical suggestion, may join the set in offering a second opinion about the play's tidy conclusion.
CREDITS: by Lisa Loomer, directed by Leonard Foglia CAST Stephanie Berry, Johanna Day, Marita Geraghty, Emma Hunton, Bronson Pinchot, Ray Porter, Hudson Thames, Rita Wilson PRODUCTION Elaine J. McCarthy, set/projections; Robert Blackman, costumes; Russell H. Champa, lights; Jon Gottlieb, sound; David S. Franklin/Michelle Blair, stage management. WORLD PREMIERE Mark Taper Forum • March 15-April 29, 2007 (Opened March 25)