Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Theater Review: Distracted

Location: Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NY, NY

Website: Official Distracted site

Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Josh Stamberg

My Review: I wouldn’t go so far as to say Distracted is a bad play, but it just didn’t work for me. It tells the tale of a modern-day mother whose son is labeled as having ADD, and all the questions and emotions she deals with when deciding whether to medicate him or not. She doesn’t want to, but she worries about him not having a normal life if she doesn’t. Her husband wants to know what’s so wrong with “kids just being kids” and even threatens divorce if she goes the Ritalin route. Various teachers, neighbors, doctors, psychiatrists, and homeopathic specialists all have opinions they’re eager to share on the “right” way for her to take care of her kid. What’s a mother to do?

My main issue with Distracted is that it tries to straddle the line between comedy and drama, and it just doesn’t work. Playwright Lisa Loomer should have either written it as a straight drama or a slapstick comedy, because the play feels very uneven how it is now. The subject matter isn’t naturally funny, so she goes out of her way to include comical asides and observations which often involve the actors breaking through the fourth wall to directly address the audience, with mixed effectiveness. I found the constant direct interaction a bit annoying and it often felt like lazy storytelling, but some other audience members seemed to enjoy it.

The set, while impressive, was a bit, well, distracting. The sides and upper level of the stage are covered with a sort of transparent screen which allows for computer-generated images to be projected on them for scene changes and to display certain elements, like a character’s Google search results or constant channel surfing. It’s like set design by PowerPoint. It’s technically impressive, but often seemed to take away from the actual performance taking place.

Cynthia Nixon, best known as Miranda from Sex and the City, basically carries the entire play on her shoulders. I don’t think there’s a moment when she isn’t onstage, and when not interacting with the rest of the cast members who take on multiple roles, she’s conversing directly with the audience, letting us know what everyone is thinking but not saying (there’s that lazy storytelling I mentioned earlier). She plays the role of a frazzled, overwhelmed, and desperate mother well. Based on this and her performance in SATC, Nixon should be everyone’s go-to girl for high-strung female characters.

The rest of the cast is impressive, including Josh Stamberg as Nixon’s husband who is every bit the ADD child her son is, and Lisa Emery in a brief yet hilarious role of a Zoloft-popping neighbor obsessed with whoever is parking in front of her house. As mean as it is to pick on child actors, the kid playing Nixon’s son was probably the weakest member of the cast. Luckily, he’s kept offstage for the majority of the play, but that doesn’t keep him from screeching lines to the characters onstage or being used to scream the scene numbers in another misguided attempt at humor.

Bottom Line: Unless you have a kid with ADD, work with kids who have ADD, or, like me, already have a subscription to the Roundabout Theatre, Distracted is an easy performance to skip. There are better shows to see, so save your money for one of them.

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