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One Hot Mess

Cynthia Nixon battles a troubled kid (and script) in Distracted.

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Lisa Loomer’s Distracted is a fast, frazzled, made-for-TV dramedy that’s so strenuously au courant, it may already be obsolete. The story revolves around (but hardly involves) a behaviorally challenged 9-year-old named Jesse (Matthew Gumley). While rarely seen, Jesse is most definitely heard: He shrieks demands and profanity from the wings in a voice that could etch tungsten. Li’l Jess could give Oskar from The Grass Harp a run for his money, and his expostulations are easily the most potent effect in a play packed with desperate cluster bombs of them.

His nameless Mama (Cynthia Nixon) keeps him offstage, nominally because “I don’t think the stage is a particularly healthy place for a child.” But this particular stage isn’t so healthy for adults either: The set mashes up a messy middle-class domicile and a cluttered computer desktop to achieve a rather spectacular migraine. Screens ripple with projections of CNN, Facebook, news tickers, stock quotes, action movies; an endless fusillade of pop-up distractions. (All that’s missing is the NYTimes.com’s “Most Emailed Articles” box—which, I suspect, may be the source text for this play.) This everyday kaleidoscope of stimuli, Loomer suggests, makes ADD less a pathology, more a way of life. Certainly, it shapes the attitudes of anxious Mama and bumptious Dad (Josh Stamberg) as they struggle—with themselves, with each other, and with a cavalcade of mental-health professionals—over what to do about Jesse: to medicate or not to medicate? To raise a kid, or treat him?

This is interesting but hardly novel stuff, and Loomer (The Waiting Room, Living Out) seems to know it. So she has fussily underlined an on-the-nose play with a meta-theatrical conceit: Mama vents bloggily to the audience, confiding at one point that “I thought of doing this as a one-woman thing, but I couldn’t get [my family] out of my head.” Actors regularly (and annoyingly) acknowledge that they’re playing multiple roles; some are “minimized,” à la Windows, and one of them (the delightful Peter Benson) frequently breaks character to sing the praises of Ritalin, without which he couldn’t remember his lines. (Did Novartis Pharmaceuticals underwrite this show?) Nixon has great ease with the material: Watching her get emotional over the atypically attentive ministrations of an Indian customer-service representative is a treat. In the end, though, these characters are types, emotional crash-test dummies, and, as such, I kept expecting Loomer to be rougher with them. But ultimately, she’s after consolation, not art. One wonders what young, irreparably refracted Jesse might have had to say had he been invited onstage for a little longer—or if we’d be able to stand listening to it.

Distracted
Laura Pels Theatre. Through May 3.


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