Arts & Culture » Theater

Stray Dog mounts Distracted and screws the pooch



Here's the official take, as printed in the playbill, on the current offering at Stray Dog Theatre: "Attention deficit disorder in a hyper tech world is explained through waves of humor as a modern day family find themselves Distracted." Questionable grammar aside, it should be noted that some in the audience were indeed laughing — if not in waves, at least consistently — throughout the performance I attended. At evening's end I even overheard a young viewer exclaim to his companion, "What a great play."

Distracted is working its way through the theater system. Four years ago it debuted at Los Angeles' prestigious Mark Taper Forum with Rita Wilson as the harassed mother of a hyperactive nine-year-old son. Two years ago New York's Roundabout Theater Company staged a production with Cynthia Nixon as Mama. Now Stray Dog has cast Michelle Hand in that central role. One has to assume that the people who run these theaters all found something of worth in this piece. But to me it was a grab bag of quips and clever asides, presented in a maddeningly staccato manner. Distracted is not so much an exploration, or even a serious consideration, of the maze that accompanies ADD as it is a shallow PowerPoint presentation of buzzwords and catch phrases with a little toilet humor thrown in for laugh insurance.

All this glibness is occasionally offset by a mournful howl from one of the parents. "I just want a normal child," Dad bleats. "Would Ritalin be a better mother than I am?" Mama asks, a reference to the drug that has been recommended for her son. Despite their attempts to evoke our empathy, Mama and Dad are the least sympathetic couple I can recall seeing on any stage. Four months from now, Stray Dog will stage Friedrich Durrenmatt's chilling drama The Visit, in which the wealthy Claire Zachanassian seeks the death of Anton Schill, a former lover who seduced and then callously abandoned her — and even those two sinister characters are more appealing than the self-absorbed, self-pitying Mama and Dad.

Late in Distracted, Dad challenges his wife to name one person who's a good listener. As is this play's cutesy wont, Mama suggests that we in the audience are good listeners. (Distracted loves to break the fourth wall, ever an easy device for a dramatist who wants to avoid dealing with the situation at hand.) An alternate answer to Dad's question might be that oftentimes playwrights are good listeners. But this playwright, Lisa Loomer, who was once a stand-up comedian, doesn't listen beyond the audience's guffaws. And by the way, Ms. Loomer, to answer another of your play's rhetorical questions: Who was the 26th president of the United States? (The inference is that in this age of information overload, today's kids needn't be bothered with such minutiae.) In fact, Theodore Roosevelt was America's 26th prez — and he was a pretty interesting guy who reached the White House despite the setbacks of an illness-besieged childhood. I don't see why anyone should be proud of not knowing who Teddy Roosevelt was.

Stray Dog Theatre is located in the Tower Grove Abbey. The dominant feature in that sanctuary-auditorium is a large stained-glass window that visualizes Jesus' admonition in Luke 18:16, "Suffer little children to come unto me." Those seven words of Scripture hang over Distracted like an unacknowledged antidote. If only Mama would spend a little less time on her cell phone and a little more time observing the immediate world around her, she might discover that life need not be quite so complicated as she insists on making it. 

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