If the news feed scrolling across the downstage scrim and the flickering screens don’t tip you off before “Distracted” has even begun that sensory overload is bad for us, the catalog of gadgetry either referenced or shown soon will. The Internet, television, TiVo menus, iPods, videogames, cell phones, BlackBerrys and other techno tools are all competing for our attention all the time, says playwright Lisa Loomer, meaning distraction is not the problem solely of those diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But bludgeoning us with that conclusion from the moment we take our seats may not be the most constructive therapy.
Loomer has packaged her thoughts, along with a Google glut of research and a full spectrum of conflicting points of view, into a brisk, occasionally clever seriocomedy about one mother’s quest to deal with her son’s possible ADD (she prefers the old-school acronym to the more cumbersome ADHD). But there’s a difference between asking an audience to witness the challenges of understanding and coping with a neurobehavioral disorder and forcing them unrelentingly to experience that state. Most of us are stressed enough already, OK?
Director Mark Brokaw has assembled an able cast, empathetically captained by Cynthia Nixon as the frazzled mother teetering on the edge of desperation, whose full-time job has become seeking treatment for her 9-year-old son, Jesse. But the production is so manic and the play’s insights telegraphed so insistently that it slides from funny to cutesy to abrasive. That downward trajectory happens way before it’s wrapped up with a simplistic conclusion that undermines Mama’s ordeal and the experience of folks exposed to similar situations in the real world.
Once the domain of Lifetime movies and daytime talkshow segments, mood disorders have been cropping up with growing frequency in theater in recent years, invariably examined through the prism of family dysfunction. Contemporary playwrights tend to lighten the load with humorous quirks, as in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Broadway-bound musical “Next to Normal,” about a bipolar depressive mother; or Liz Flahive’s “From Up Here,” about a depressed teen stigmatized by a violent episode. But neither those plays nor Loomer’s harnesses the universal perspective and emotional resonance to make them fully satisfying.
They all could take lessons from Lisa Kron, who poured such reserves of been-there compassion and crankiness into “Well” that the audience shared her mission to understand her mother’s multifarious, indefinable “allergies,” while gaining broader insights into the messy complexities of every mother-daughter relationship.
Loomer uses the same kind of Pirandellian metatheatrics Kron wielded in “Well.” When we meet Nixon’s unnamed Mama, she’s hurrying through her morning meditation before Jesse (Matthew Gumley, offstage for most of the play) wakes up and starts screaming demands. As the phone rings and Jesse hollers “Scene one!,” Mama breaks the fourth wall to share her exasperation and smile apologetically when her son curses.
The direct-address dialogue continues throughout. Nixon’s character alternates between talking us through her anxieties and interacting with neighbors, doctors, therapists and teachers whose contradictory opinions on Jesse’s problem make Mama’s head spin.
“I thought of doing this as a one-woman thing,” she confesses. “But I couldn’t get them out of my head.” She means Jesse and her easygoing husband (Josh Stamberg), who dismisses his son’s behavior as normal childhood energy: “Can’t a boy be a boy anymore for chrissakes?”
The play’s conflict hinges on whether Jesse has ADD or is in fact just a volatile kid prone to tantrums and saying “fuck” a lot. Will Mama give in and put him on medication, risking her marriage in the process? Is it better to let an uncontrollable kid act out or drug him into “nice and quiet” manageability? Should his teacher tolerate his disruptions to the class? Is his problem psychological or the result of diet, toxins or simply a society that breeds kids like Jesse?
Those and other questions are stretched out to a wearying degree, particularly in the repetitious second act. But there are some amusing sounding boards, notably a string of doctors played by Peter Benson, from a touchy-feely homeopath to a businesslike shrink. When the latter is challenged regarding the effectiveness of ADD medications, Benson steps out of character to unmask a high-strung actor, who would never even get to auditions without Ritalin, let alone remember his lines and play multiple roles.
Lisa Emery gets laughs in her scenes as a brittle neighbor with obsessive-compulsive disorder, her neck, shoulders and jaw looking so tense they might snap. And Shana Dowdeswell has affecting moments as Jesse’s adolescent babysitter, who favors cutting over pharmaceuticals. She looks touchingly perplexed when Nixon’s character shyly suggests her depression might be just standard teen issues to be endured without treatment.
But Loomer shows a heavy hand by putting the entire neighborhood on medication. The folks on this middle-class suburban street are popping Xanax, Adderall, Prozac, Ritalin and Trileptal like Tic Tacs. And the unmedicated characters, like Jesse’s seemingly uncomplicated Dad, have their own issues with distracted self-absorption. Sure, the playwright has a point, but the lack of subtlety pushes it toward facetiousness.
The play’s ending also is problematic, compounded by the cloying mistake of bringing Jesse onstage. Loomer’s skepticism regarding all the supposed answers offered by specialists is understandable, but proposing old-fashioned TLC as an alternative just makes Mama seem dim for not trying that approach first.
Brokaw keeps the play speeding along on its own frantic energy, aided by Tal Yarden’s projections to redefine its multiple locations. And Nixon keeps the audience engaged with her character, even when she’s borderline hysterical. But “Distracted” feels almost as tiring to sit through as it no doubt is to perform. It’s saturated with information but thin on dramatic incident, offering too little reward for the frustration of its possibly unsolvable quandary.