REVIEW: Distracted (American Theatre Company)

‘Distracted’ isn’t worth your attention

 Fulks, Wilder - H II

American Theatre Company presents:

Distracted

by Lisa Loomer
directed by PJ Paparellil
through February 28th (more info)

review by Keith Ecker 

I’ve been told by medical professionals that I have both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and general anxiety disorder (GAD), which is the exact same dual diagnosis given to the little boy in the play Distracted.

Fulks - V III So you’d think that because I could identify with one of the play’s central figures, I’d probably be able to sympathize with its characters; maybe I’d be moved to think about the consequences of medicating children. Well, I can’t sympathize, and the only thing I was moved to do was leave the theater once the lights came up.

There’s a lot to be said about this American Theatre Company production. So much in fact that it’s hard to focus. But as my therapist reminds me, it’s best to break things down into smaller tasks.

Let’s start with something simple, like the space. It’s huge with an exposed concrete floor big enough to stage Xanadu. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a large space. It just requires a lot of energy to fill it. Unfortunately, there’s little energy in this play. The mother (Donna Jay Fulks), who tries to “fix” her son’s AD/HD, has the emotional depth of a woman in an Activia commercial. When she should be banging her head against the steel beam that was obstructing my view of stage left, she instead grits her teeth, rolls her eyes and half-asses a mantra to calm herself down.

On a positive note, the use of 16 flat-screen televisions was a novel effect. Not only do the screens serve as figurative distractions—representing cell phones, cable news and instant messaging—they also create digital scenery. A doctor’s office, for example, comes to life when the screens flicker with images of impressionist paintings and a fish tank.

Next, the acting. I’ll start with the positive on this one. The supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles, steals the show. As the protagonist boringly drifts from one professional to another, teetering on helplessness and frustrated but never quite getting there, the supporting cast infuses real emotion and vibrancy into the piece. Audrey Morgan, who plays the teacher, a doctor and a nurse, and Dina Facklis, who plays the obsessive-compulsive neighbor Vera, have impeccable commitment and comedic chops. When they speak, the play comes to life.

Facklis, Fulks - V Unfortunately, most of the time the acting is dead on arrival. The mother and father (Kevin Rich) are an incredibly unconvincing couple, playing out the tension in the relationship with all the reality of a “very special episode” of a primetime sitcom. True, Fulks had a challenging part. The mother is the sun that the world of the play revolves around. But damn it, feel something! Maybe this is emblematic of Distracted’s suburbia setting, where people harbor a sort of overly reserved kind of existential anger at society that must be suppressed for fear of what the neighbors might think. But hey, we’re all human. And even a soccer mom is going to have a mental breakdown at some point. I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pretty. The best we get is a shoe-shopping spree and a small outburst where she confesses to the audience that she feels like her son is ruining her life.

The direction. PJ Paparelli, who is also the artistic director of ATC, makes Distracted move fast. A bedroom morphs into an office which morphs into a classroom. A teacher becomes a nurse, a doctor breaks out of character and everyone stops action to speak to the audience. The smash-cut scene changes work thanks to the coasters on all the set pieces. However, the character switches do not. Paparelli moves so fast that half the time the actors seem confused as to whom they are supposed to be, occasionally stumbling over their lines in an effort to catch up.

Finally, the writing. I’m amazed this play was first produced in 2007 because it feels like it was from the early 90s. I’m 28 years old. Childhood Ritalin prescriptions were commonplace, albeit controversial, when I was 8. This play treats the subject matter as untouched territory while failing to contribute anything to the decades-old dialogue. Worse still, the whole piece feels like a big lecture, a sort of morality play where the audience is talked down to the entire time. And because there aren’t really characters in this piece, just physical embodiments of different points of view, we never have the opportunity to care about anyone.

One last note: If you do find anything redeeming about this play, it will all be dashed by the miserable ending. Distracted just kind of peters out on an anticlimactic note, that note being a song by Eminem, a rapper no tweenage boy has listened to for nearly a decade. I don’t know if the use of Eminem was in the script or if it was a directorial move, but it reminded me of watching my mom try to prove how cool she still is by doing tequila shots.

A good supporting cast and some interesting stage elements can’t save this production. Sadly, the only thing you’ll be paying attention to while watching Distracted is your watch.

 

Rating: ★½

 

Rich, Fulks - H all photos by Christopher Plevin

 

 

cast/characters

 

Meet Mama. She’s smart, warm, wry, dedicated but distractable. She’s played by Donna Jay Fulks.

 

She’s married to Dad. He designs car crashes for a living. Dad is played by Kevin Rich.

Noah Schwartz plays Jesse, their son. He’s funny, sweet, angry. He has a mouth on him. He’s nine.

 

When problems with Jesse get worse, Mama and Dad seek help from several professionals:



They turn to a homeopath, Dr. Broder, and a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Jinks, and an environmental physician, Dr. Karns. They’re all played by Alan Wilder.
They also work with Jesse’s teacher, Mrs. Holly, and Dr. Waller, an educational neuropsychologist, and a Nurse. They’re all played by Audrey Morgan.
Dr. Zavala, a child psychologist, is eager to help. She’s played by Minita Gandhi, who also plays Carolyn, a mother of an autistic child, and a Waitress with ADHD.
 
Mama also has the support of her neighbors, who may be wrestling with their own challenges:

Vera, played by Dina Facklis, is lacking in the people-skills department and a bit obsessive. Sherry, played by Hannah Dworkin, wants the very best for her daughter.
Natalie, played by ATC Ensemble member Sadieh Rifai, is Sherry’s typical teenage daughter. But in today’s world, what is typical for a teenager?

6 Responses

  1. Perhaps we’ve seen different plays??? Either that or you’ve A: never been a mother or B: never had to DEAL with a child with the these issues. It’s a very different thing to be the child than to parent the child. My husband & I thought the parents & child were outstanding, as was a wonderful supporting cast. The choices available to todays parents of these children are many & contradictory.
    That was what they showed.

    • hey there Sue. Thanks for commenting. One thing that makes theatre so wonderful is that the same play can mean totally different things to different people. So it’s great to get a mother’s viewpoint.It’s often happened to me where I really loved a movie that had been panned bycritics , and the same thing happens in theatre. This play will no doubt talk to many people, so please spread the word!

      Thanks again, and thanks for reading,

      Best,

      Scotty Zacher Founder/editor, ChicagoTheaterBlog

  2. The unfortunate thing is that Donna was put into the show two weeks or less before opening. I saw the production a few weeks later, and I thought she was great. I was not engaged by Kevin Rich. I too thought the play seemed dated as a text, and it moved a bit too quickly. And Eminem is never a good choice.

  3. Hi Dylan,

    That’s interesting that Donna was put into the show so close to the opening. This is definitely a challenging part. Mama is our entrypoint into this world, and if we can’t relate to her (or don’t believe her) then what do we have? Hopefully, as you say, she was able to get a better handle on the role as weeks went by.

    And yes, Eminem was a strange choice. It’s too recent to be retro but too dated to be current.

    Thanks for reading the review and sharing your thoughts.

    Keith

  4. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/helthrpt/hstories/hr290796.htm

    This exposess some of what going on in false autism diagnosis today…

    also, i highly recommened seeeing Youtube video “AUTISM EPIDEMIC OUT OF CONTROL”

  5. Having been a mom who’s been through all of what this play portrays, it was really great to laugh at the memories. Good job!

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