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A CurtainUp Review

Would Ritalin get him a friend to sit with at lunch?. . .Would Ritalin be a better mother than I am?—Mama

With Distracted I wondered if In our information-rich world we were becoming, well, distracted from what was truly important. With this play I'm asking 'Okay, let's take a moment out of our busy lives and consider this together. . .in the dark'—Lisa Loomer.
Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon & Josh Stamberg
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Lisa Loomer has done it again. She's simultaneously written a riotously funny play and tackled an important social issue. She's applied her gift for blending comedy with problems caused or exacerbated by the world we live in to the extremes women go to in the name of beauty in The Waiting Room, the search for a child in Expecting Isabel, and the politics of illegal immigration in Living Out.

Distracted, her latest venture that is being given its New York premiere at the Roundabout's Off-Broadway venue, once again finds Loomer inhabiting her dual persona of sociological explorer and playwright. The problem given her serio-comic attention this time is Attention Deficit Disorder, also known as ADD and ADHD — which she ties in with our information overloaded environment and how it has made us too distracted to separate trivial pursuits from what's really important.

While Loomer has obviously researched ADD and its assorted diagnostic and treatment options, she's also given herself leeway to include plain old loving attention as a curative "drug" of choice. She takes some satirical swipes not only at the professionals who try to help 9-year-old Jesse (Matthew Gumley, the play's ADD kid) be a "normal" boy, but at his stressed-out parents (Cynthis Nixon and Josh Stamberg referred to only as Mama and Dad) and their well-intentioned neighbors. The satirical send-ups notwithstanding, the playwright's gift for characterization and blending humor with poignancy, make this everymomanddad sympathetic and real enough for us to leave the theater rooting for them. We root even more for Jesse even though he's mostly off stage because as Mama declares early on in the play, "I don't think the stage is a particularly healthy place for a child. Besides, people only want to see a child on stage if he's singing show tunes." And while Jesse never sings, I'm not really spoiling any great surprise when I tell you that he does get a wonderfully choreographed bit of stage time.

Nixon is a natural for the role of the anxious but always likeable mom. She brings an easy grace and charm to the frazzled Mama, never allowing the anxiety to become caricaturish. Josh Stamberg too is well cast as the macho Dad who may have been an ADD kid himself and who's convinced his child can and should outgrow his problems without drugs. Despite Mama being desperate enough to listen to and follow the various experts' advice, and Dad's increasing hostility, Loomer manages to make us believe that they love each other and their boy.

Not the least of this funny yet disturbing play's pleasures can be attributed to its clever structure with its amusing and apt meta-theatrical detours and the way some subsidiary characters are written to be multiple cast. Another major plus is the flair with which Director Mark Brokaw and his designers' have executed Ms. Loomer's vision for the look and feel of the play: a minimally furnished set but one wired to evoke the ADD-prone world so that laptops, iphones and TV screens are always present and ready to shift locales and --well, to distract.

The psychedelic colors of Mark Wendland's suburban house set the tone for the tense, always connected to one device or another lives of its occupants. Its most concrete feature is a staircase leading to the second floor and the heard but rarely seen Jesse's bedroom. A kitchen counter, tables and chairs are rolled out as needed to facilitate moves to the street outside, a restaurant and assorted doctors' consulting rooms. The upstage television accommodates Tal Yarden's videos and projections of tv programs (Dad is compelled to click on the screen no matter what else is going on) as well as images of the art each doctor seems to favor (including Van Gogh who, according to one of the docs might not have cut off his ear if he'd been given Ritalin). To ramp up this world-of-screens imagery there's even a scrolling news marquee overarching the proscenium.

As Laura Hitchcock said when she reviewed Distracted's Los Angeles premiere, the humor is beyond laugh lines. It's a necessity to keep the serious situation of parents confronted with the choice of putting their children on drugs or having them unhappy, friendless and shoved into Special Ed classes from being unbearably painful to watch. The humor is also a vital ingredient contributing to the success of the support cast's multiple role playing— especially Peter Benson who plays Doctors Broders, Jinks and Karnes and gets to do some of the play's best meta-theatrical fourth wall breaking.

If Loomer has plopped Jesse and his parents on a suburban street that seems to have more than its share of parents with seriously troubled children, chalk it up to literary license without which you wouldn't see the likes of Lisa Emery in the small but big-time funny role of Vera, an obsessive-compulsive, super outspoken pill popping mom. And, if you're wondering where Mama and Dad, who don't seem to be in the upper income strata, get the money for all those $125 an hour therapy sessions, not to mention two trips to a holistic clinic in New Mexico, don't let mental arithmetic distract you from enjoying and empathizing with their journey through the medical and psychological maze of ADD treatments.

The play does allow itself to become distracted and wander too far into a sub-plot about Natalie (Shan Dowdeswell), one neighbor's teen-aged daughter who's gone through all manner of drug treatments to deal with a disorder involving self-abuse. But it's a minor complaint since this play confirms Lisa Loomer as one of our most original theatrical voices, a playwright who knows how to make us think and laugh at the same time.

Expecting Isabel(DC 1998)
Broken Hearts(LA 1999)
(re-enter in master Distracted/ (Los Angeles 2007)
Living Out (Los Angeles 2003)
Living Out (NY premiere 2003)

By Lisa Loomer
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: Cynthia Nixon (Mama), Peter Benson (Dr. Broder, Dr. Karnes, Dr. Jinks), Shana Dowdeswell (Natalie), Lisa Emery (Vera), Natalie Gold (Dr. Zavala, Waitress, Carolyn), Matthew Gumley (Jesse), Mimi Lieber (Sherry), Aleta Mitchell (Mrs. Holly, Dr. Waller, Nurse), Josh Stamberg (Dad).
Sets: Mark Wendland
Costumes: Michael Krass
Lights: Jane Cox
Original Music &Sound: David Van Tieghem
Production & Video Design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Kari Brothers
Running Time: Approx 2 hours and 5 minutes, incldes one intermission
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St (6th & 7th Aves) 212.719.1300
From 2/07/09; opening 3/04/09; closing 5/10/09. Tuesday, Thursday - Friday, 7:30PM; Wednesday & Saturday, 2PM & 7:30PM Sunday, 2PM.
Tickets $70 to $80. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/28 press preview
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