Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, a recent play about a troubled American family, had its own trouble coming together for a solid opening-night crowd at City Lights Theater Company last Saturday night. In Distracted, a typical suburban mother spends an anxious period trying to cope with her son Jesse’s possible diagnosis with ADD, her husband’s negative reaction to the situation, the speculation of friends and neighbors, the conflicting recommendation of doctors and her own fear of medicating her 9-year-old boy with Ritalin. The frenzied pace and aggravating aspects of life in the Information Age are rolled into a ball of self-conscious dialogue and tossed onto the stage, challenging the characters and the audience to look critically at their lives, their children and their choices.
Karen DeHart does a good job with the demanding lead role of Mama. She’s onstage for the duration of the play, both multitasking within the context of the story and knocking down the “fourth wall” to talk directly to the audience. Kristin Brownstone shines in a complex three-part role, making the quick changes between teacher, psychologist and waitress written into the dialogue work seamlessly. As Dad, Michael Riley displays irritation, anger and volume, creating a character who comes off as a big loud jerk. The silly accents adopted by Steve Gold in the role of the various doctors who treat Jesse go too far, detracting from the already dubious humor and burying any sense of realism.
Jane Lambert’s costume design is a high point of the production, creating close-to-life characterizations with quirky pops of color in just the right places. On the other hand, sound design is a weak spot, with the amplification of Jesse’s voice as he calls out the scene numbers creating an especially grating effect. Multimedia designer Anthony Catchatoorian added some up-to-date items to the video clips that play on the big screens looming over the stage. That helps with the problem of Bush-era pop-culture references that now feel out of date.
The audience laughed at the snappy one-liners in the first act, but the effusive response waned in the second, as it became clear that the questions Loomer poses will not be answered or even explored intelligently before the end of the play. The device of direct interaction between Mama and the audience works well enough, though the blocking and the set design keep her back away from the crowd, and that’s a shame. Director Lisa Mallette takes an over-the-top route with a script that might have benefited more from a lighter, more subtle touch. Brash comedy takes center stage in this production, leaving the drama of a difficult real-life situation behind. Ultimately, Distracted becomes a victim of its own themes, letting quick surface cleverness substitute for serious storytelling.
Thursday Saturday, 8pm, Sun, 7pm (May 29) or 2pm, through June 19
City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose