nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
March 13, 2009
Lisa Loomer's Distracted is a play for 2009. Directed by Mark Brokaw and starring Cynthia Nixon, Distracted tells the story of a world gone attention-deficit. From the moment you enter the Laura Pels Theatre and spy Mark Wendland's wonderful two-tiered set with Tal Yarden's innovative projections all over the place, you have no idea where to look first. My eye went to the widescreen TV in the background playing commercials. Then I focused on the Facebook page that was flashing every few minutes. Then the giant clock. Then the news crawl.
Then, I finally started to read the Playbill, as I was so dizzy from looking all over the place, with every little thing catching my attention. I guess this is what it's like to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the disease that afflicts Jesse, a foul-mouthed nine-year-old whom we only meet at the end of the play. His Mama, played by the always lovely, if miscast Cynthia Nixon, keeps him off stage, "because people only want to see a child on stage if he's singing showtunes." She finds the diagnosis to be almost like a death sentence and takes it upon herself to find a cure, from therapy to dreaded drugs. As she struggles to dig deeper into his ailment and comes to terms with putting Jesse on medication, she slowly starts to realize that maybe everyone is attention-deficit in some way or another.
There are some good laughs, but Loomer's script sacrifices emotional truth for comedy. The genius of Brokaw's staging is that it's so hyperactive that it manages to keep you distracted from this major flaw (and assorted others) until you walk out of the theater and realize how unaffected you are. (For the record, some other flaws include two-dimensional characters, forced conflict, a pace-killing intermission, and a "life goes on" ending that is ultimately too "normal" for this heightened reality.)
Nixon isn't a comic actress; even on Sex and the City, she was the straight-woman. Here's she's given a dearth of comedy to play and it comes off as insincere. It's only at the end, a comedy-free moment, where she comes off as genuine. Josh Stamberg as Dad, on the other hand, delivers a sincere performance throughout. The rest of the ensemble does a bang-up job, with Peter Benson as three different doctors (and a disgruntled actor) running away with the production. His revealing how he was able to memorize three different parts is one of those great, jaw-dropping comic monologues. Lisa Emery, who barely raises her voice above a flat monotone, comes a close second.
The designs are the best I've seen at the Laura Pels Theatre. Wendland's set, Jane Cox's lighting, and Yarden's projection designs are inventive and make great use of the entire stage. Watching the show, you feel like you're sitting in the middle of a giant iPhone.
A wonderful moment occurs midway through the first act. Mama is running down the list of ADHD symptoms. "Short attention span. Distractibility. Impulsivity," she begins. Dad turns on the television. "Poor judgment, trouble learning from experience, risk Taking, and conflict seeking"...And there's George W. Bush, smirking.