Saturday, May 21, 2011

Distracted : City Lights Theater Company : Superb Cast Grabs your Attention!

They say the origin of comedy is pain. And perhaps the worst agony one can experience is being the parent to a profoundly unhappy child. It stands to reason, then, that one would expect Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, a timely examination of a boy’s affliction with “attention deficit disorder,” would be nothing less than hilarious. Indeed, it is quite amusing. But her sitcom approach to the topic, while never failing to entertain, manages to elicit no more than an occasional guffaw and a random chuckle or two.
K. Michael Riley (Dad) and Karen DeHart (Mama)
That’s not to say that the playwright doesn’t go to great lengths to grab one's interest. While exploring the ethical dilemma of medicating children with powerful psychotropic drugs, she humorously depicts virtually every fanciful cause and treatment imaginable. She even resorts to having the actors break character and the fourth wall, albeit without ever really going all the way through. And she bombards us with a spectacular multi-media display of information overload, often highlighting suspected A.D.D. sufferers throughout history, from Vincent Van Gogh to George W. Bush. 

Mama on her laptop researches A.D.D.
And for the most part the stylistic devices are effective and mirror the central theme of the play. Of course, credit for pulling it all off must be given to the assured directorial hand of Lisa Mallette (City Lights' artistic director) and flawless execution by a set of talented designers including Anthony Catchatoorian (Video), Ron Gasparinetti (Scenic), Michael Palumbo (Lighting) and the one and only George Psarras (Sound).

Steve Gold (Dr. Jinks) and "Mama"
 Perhaps the basic flaw of the piece lies not with the quality of the material, but its sheer quantity. Most of the supporting cast members play multiple roles, each in their own way hapless victims of similar mental ailments. Quite frankly, despite the skill and alacrity of all concerned, the many characterizations become redundant. The use of no less than five doctors to make its point comes perilously close to overkill! 

Dad and Mama
“Mama” desperately seeks an answer to her 9-year-old’s malady, and her character is both the central participant and quasi-narrator. Undaunted by the prodigious volume of dialogue, Karen DeHart deftly wears both hats without ever missing a beat. It’s an impressive display of acting technique and comic timing, but inhabiting each part has an unintended consequence. Try as she might, she remains conspicuously detached from the emotional content of most of her scenes. 

Kate McGrath (Natalie)
“Dad,” as played by K. Michael Riley, is the irascible, less than exemplary father whose refusal to accept his son’s condition is rooted not only in denial but a sincere belief that his behavior is not abnormal for a kid. Riley is convincing and evinces an affable gruffness that’s not as easy to achieve as he makes it look.

A marvelous assortment of eccentric therapists, teachers and mothers fill out the remainder of the troupe, portrayed with outlandish zeal by Rachel Davidman, Kristin Brownstone, Steve Gold and Jennifer Jane Parsons. Honorable mention goes to Kate McGrath’s (Natalie) nuanced, spot-on depiction of a teenaged babysitter with serious problems of her own; and Mary Lou Torre (Vera), whose very funny and quirky turn is a case study in maternal neurosis! 
Mary Lou Torre (Vera), Mama, and Jennifer Jane Parsons (Sherry)
And special recognition must go to Kameron Dehart as young Jesse, whose brief appearance onstage steals the show and provides a much needed dose of genuine humanity and optimism. Bravo!

This is a worthy penultimate production of the season for one of the finest companies in the South Bay. Don’t miss it!

Kameron DeHart (Jesse) and Mama

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