Sensitive teenagers can be difficult characters in the best of dramas. But they’re a real pain in the ass in self-indulgent coming-of-age plays like “War in Paramus.” Scribe Barbara Dana has won awards for her books for children and young adults (“Zucchini,” etc.), but her first play — set in 1970 and dealing with a 15-year-old’s rebellion against her family’s values — is no prize. The uncharacteristically disjointed helming by Austin Pendleton shines a perverse spotlight on the show’s flaws and the egg on the collective face of his pro cast.
Newbie thesp Anne Letscher gives the most watchable perf as terrible teen Thelma, whose rude and sullen behavior goes pretty much ignored in a household distracted by an older daughter’s upcoming wedding. Left on her own to make sense of the ideological meltdown in which her Nixon-era world finds itself, Thelma gets no adult direction on how to cope with what disturbs her — which can be anything from Janis Joplin’s death to a high school kid in Nebraska who goes berserk and shoots his parents at the breakfast table.
While Letscher isn’t entirely believable in tracking the arc of Thelma’s self-destructiveness, there is sufficient edginess to her perf to give us some inkling that this kid is headed for trouble.
The big problem with the script is that it doesn’t dramatize teenage alienation in a way that makes it inevitable and ultimately tragic. Thelma’s father (Matthew Arkin), mother (Kate Bushmann) and elder sister, Jennifer (Lisa McCormick), do not individually contribute to the girl’s isolation by failing her in specific ways that are obviously damaging. Rather, the entire family simply ignores her. While this might be Dana’s very point about how straitlaced New Jersey families stifled social rebellion during the Nixonian era, it hardly makes for compelling drama.
Not that there aren’t hints of danger in the family dynamic. Mom’s cheery efficiency is chillingly robotic. Dad’s spirit is so crushed he can barely lift his eyes from the floor. Even lovely birdbrain Jennifer has a scary moment of insight before resigning herself to her perfect marriage as a Stepford wife.
Pendleton’s loose-as-a-goose direction does little to capitalize on these textual pointers. Instead of injecting a bit of menace into the meaningless domestic rituals and conventional chitchat with which this family insulates itself from reality, helmer goes for strained comedy.
Ill-served play doesn’t even get a break from the tech treatment. The light-and-bright message of David Castaneda’s lighting design indicates sitcom zaniness, while Michael Schweikardt’s overbearingly ugly set design works against the aura of comfort and stability indicative of the era.
As unflattering as they are, Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes, like the selection of radio pop tunes, at least conform to the aesthetics of the period.