Every up-and-coming playwright should be so lucky as Sarah Schulman. Working the old razzle-dazzle on scribe’s offbeat comedy “Manic Flight Reaction,” helmer Trip Cullman accentuates the positive and buries the negative in the clash of values between a ’70s-era earth-mother and her materialistic college-student daughter. Smartly top-cast with the irresistible Deirdre O’Connell as the free-spirited bisexual mother and bright-young-thing Jessica Collins as her opportunistic daughter, production can’t disguise the tortured plot mechanics and polemical political tone — but it’s breezy enough to sail above them.
O’Connell (“Spatter Pattern”) is hilariously dreamy and dopey as Marge, a brainy academic who has emigrated from Manhattan to teach “The History of Consciousness” at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. Although not about to renounce her sexually liberated habits (she is currently conducting a maternal affair with a spacey graduate student sweetly played by Austin Lysy), she is intent on stabilizing her hectic life.
Marge hasn’t quite got the hang of Midwestern standards or given up entirely on her madcap Manhattan values, and the mismatched furnishings of Louisa Thompson’s amusing set reflect a certain dichotomy to her fragile sense of serenity. But she’s stable enough to support her daughter Grace (Collins) wholeheartedly when she comes home for Christmas break with preppy boyfriend Luke (Michael Esper) and announces she’s taking a break from college.
O’Connell is so generous in her characterization of Marge that we don’t immediately get impatient with her indulgence of her daughter’s nasty attitude and selfish ways. That doesn’t happen until she goes along with Grace and Luke’s manipulative scheme to jumpstart their careers at her expense.
It seems that the love of Marge’s life, her high-school girlfriend Cookie (Molly Price), is now married to a vile politician who is the leading candidate for president. According to the kids’ argument, Marge will save the country from disaster by outing Cookie to the press (via a scandal-sheet reporter played with delicious amorality by Angel Desai). Given the shamelessness of their shallow characters, Grace and Luke have no problem admitting that throwing Marge to the wolves, along with Cookie, will make their own fortunes as well.
Schulman has a quick wit that reveals itself in sharp one-liners that impale every character in sight. But the savagery of her satire lacks heart and the bluntness of her simplistic political views takes the stuffing out of their ideological impasse. More to the point, she doesn’t allow logic to enter into these arguments. Although Marge has a real moral dilemma, Schulman’s determination to turn her into a victim forces her to cave in to her daughter’s demands without a legitimate — or believable — fight.
These killing grounds are just too antiseptic, even for Illinois.