In the stillness of dawn, Mama (Rita Wilson) sits cross-legged and alone, absorbed in reciting the St. Francis Prayer. As heavenly light reflects upon her, a scream splits the calm: “SCENE ONE!” The sound is unearthly but also familiar — the voice of the modern tyrant-child. Soon Mama forgets about solitude to fix breakfast for Jesse, her demanding 9-year-old, while pleading with him to get dressed. Jesse’s upstairs-end of the conversation consists of many exclamation points sprinkled with some words, including those of the F variety. (As voiced by child actor Hudson Thames, Jesse sounds something like Rush Limbaugh slightly leavened by a helium balloon.)
So begins our introduction to a mother’s world in Lisa Loomer’s play Distracted, currently running at the Mark Taper Forum. Loomer’s Mama will spend the next two hours coming to terms with evidence that her hyperactive Jesse suffers from attention deficit disorder (ADD), and her search for answers takes her to the offices of teachers, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, nutritionists and homeopaths — all of whom argue over what’s best for Mama’s boy.
There was a time when a far less ambivalent expert — Dr. Belt — would’ve diagnosed Jesse’s tantrums. Those days belong to the Neolithic past, however, before children and adults alike were psychologically wired to cell phones, video games and dashboard TVs. Loomer slyly makes the point that we grown-ups, just as much as our kids, are the Pavlovian-conditioned recipients of the thousand digital shocks that flesh is heir to. Mama displays an almost pornographic ability to multitask with her cell phone. and Dad (Ray Porter) is seldom without his television remote. The difference is that they, as adults, have assimilated into the spreading technologies, while children are born into them, making kids more vulnerable to being emotionally shaped — or disfigured — by incessant electronic stimuli.
The show’s core question is, Should we medicate children so they can learn and socialize, while possibly sedating their creative individualism as well? The question is contemporary but has hydroponic roots in what might be called “mad chic,” a pop aesthetic of the 1960s and ’70s that, in its crudest expression, suggested that a country’s mental patients were its truly sane citizens, while normal society itself was mad. It’s our culture of medication that is really on trial in Distracted and which dominates debates about whether or not Mama and Dad should tame Jesse with prescriptions. Mama is willing to explore the possibilities, while Dad, a charmless lug attached to a ponytail, is dead set against any brave new medicated world.
“We’d all just be bored to death,” Dad says, “ … there’d be no Belushi, no Robin Williams.” This dangerous view of American comedy certainly shows that Loomer is unafraid of controversy. (Sure, meds might prevent a Manson or Hitler, but then we’d lose Bluto and Patch Adams.) What is less cleverly distracting about Distracted is how repetitively Loomer knocks down the fourth wall between actors and audience, like a hyperactive kid obsessively knocking over a stack of Lego blocks. Mama speaks in asides to us, as though feeling the need to appeal to a higher jury than that of her onstage peers.
Distracted remains both fun and funny, however, thanks mostly to Rita Wilson, an engaging performer who can make us forget such asides for the ingratiating contrivance they are. Although Loomer’s script calls for a mom in her 30s or 40s, the 50-year-old Wilson easily portrays Mama as the archetypal mother who is just coming to terms with a new wrinkle in parenting. Her comedic timing is perfect, while she essays a completely sympathetic Everymom.
Director Leonard Foglia choreographs the often rapid-fire scenes as a kind of morality ballet, while never allowing Loomer’s characters to devolve into talking heads. Set and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy has constructed a stage architecture of shifting images (respectively accompanied by Jon Gottlieb’s jarring sound design and Russell H. Champa’s energetic light plot) that both backdrop specific locales and capture the sensory bombast of contemporary life. Loomer’s narrative objectivity may not be as opaque as she may think, but at least Distracted offers lessons that don’t require a bottle of Ritalin to absorb.
Even more pronounced than Loomer’s tilt in the ADD debate is her play’s thoroughly upper-middle-class milieu. Taper audiences murmur appreciatively when Mama confesses to spending $362 at her health-food store or to buying seven pairs of shoes online just because the experience is so much fun. And they don’t blink at Dad’s mention of Jesse’s $125-an-hour shrink bills. No such class insularity, however, protects the yuppie characters of another bourgeois-panic satire, Matt Pelfrey’s An Impending Rupture of the Belly. (The Furious Theatre Company world premiere is currently on view at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre.)
This 90-minute one-act is all about the breaching of the suburban moat and relentlessly plays on middle-class fears. Clay (Eric Pargac) lives with his pregnant wife, Terri (Aubrey Saverino), in Pasadena. At home he’s mild-mannered and accommodating to a fault — he cannot bring himself to confront a neighborhood lout (Troy Metcalf) whose dog regularly craps on the couple’s lawn. Nor does he attempt to overcome Terri’s objections to his homeless brother, Ray (Shawn Lee), who is a member of a Kiss tribute band named Scrotus and who dismisses Clay for belonging to the “mortgage gulag.”
At work, however, Clay is subjected to the Rush-and-Bush chauvinism of a colleague, Eugene (Doug Newell), who predicts an impending apocalypse of riot, earthquake and ruin. This armchair Rambo persuades Clay to view his home as a kind of fortified Green Zone surrounded by hostile forces — it’s not enough that Clay be the king of his castle, he must also be his suburban jungle’s lord of the flies. “There are hairline fractures everywhere,” Clay warns, parroting Eugene’s opinion of American society.
Egged on by Eugene, Clay eventually confronts lout and dog with his 9-iron. With one swing, he sends his own world spinning irrevocably out of control. While not as mature a work as David Mamet’s Edmond, Pelfrey’s story similarly exploits the notion of an over-civilized Homo lexus who momentarily summons primitive energy to strike back at perceived tormentors. The twist here is that Clay’s perceptions are unerringly false and that, at a few critical junctures, Terri is just unsupportive enough to send Clay kicking off in dangerous directions.
What makes Belly a worthy entry into the Falling Down genre is that Clay is not so thoroughly pathetic as his decisions may indicate. There’s no question that he’s being bullied, and in such a way that he would seem weak to call the police or a lawyer in to deal with his neighbor. Nor are his fears of spending time in jail or losing his class security unfounded — he has only to look at Ray to remember what happens to people who stumble in life and take too long getting back up. Finally, his main motive — to protect Terri and her unborn child — is unimpeachable. In the end, it’s how much Clay allows his fear of outsiders to inflect his actions that makes him such a sad character — and a lesson for the rest of us.
Director Dámaso Rodriguez tautly directs a cast that is completely in tune with Pelfrey’s unsparing vision. (Lee is deliciously over the top as the crack-smoking Ray, who sees himself as a kind of graceful predator prowling the asphalt savanna of Skid Row.) Scenic designer Dan Jenkins’ waffle-board cutouts of city buildings, Cricket Myers’ thunderous sound design and Christie Wright’s ominous lighting all combine to create a diorama of dread.
“It felt like I was a part of something bigger,” Clay marvels as he describes his fateful golf swing and the pain it unleashed. The truly creepy thing is that Pelfrey doesn’t suggest whether Clay is outside society or if the rest of us will have to catch up to Clay — which may be the highest tribute yet to mad chic.
DISTRACTED | By LISA LOOMER | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through April 29 | (213) 628-2772
AN IMPENDING RUPTURE OF THE BELLY | By MATT PELFREY | At Furious Theatre Company at PASADENA PLAYHOUSE’S CARRIE HAMILTON THEATRE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through May 12 | (626) 356-PLAY