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Manic Flight Reaction

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Frank sex talk? Check. Between mother, daughter, and both their boyfriends? Check. Political satire? Check. Provocative prognosticating from a token dimwit? Check. Babble about the importance of truth polluted by trenchant secret-keeping? Check. Banal, emotionally vacant dialogue masquerading as profundity? Check.

Yes, whatever your particular taste for unedgy edginess or predictable unpredictability, you'll sample it in Sarah Schulman's Manic Flight Reaction, then you'll be stuffed to bursting with it. This new comedy at Playwrights Horizons might be a passable 45-minute play, but it's been stretched into two stringy hours of paceless, meandering non-action (hopelessly directed by Trip Cullman) that most hourlong TV dramas would look upon as too old-fashioned to consider in even their most desperate weeks.

At least at home you'd have a remote control to change the channel or mute the sound; in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, you're not so lucky. If you decide to stick around through the whole play, you're assaulted with jokey exchanges like "How did you get pregnant? / I partied" or "There is a cure for homosexuality. / What? / Fame," and insights like "Anything human can be healed if the people involved tell the truth" and "Nobody wants to know the truth, they just want someone to blame."

Perhaps, but in my book Schulman's the only one to blame here, for erroneously believing lines like these comfortably fit into a story about bisexual professor Marge (Deirdre O'Connell), her media-savvy daughter Grace (Jessica Collins), and the lies they promise won't come between them, but which of course do. In this case, the mendacity stems from Marge's mother's death in an airplane crash some 30 years ago (the title refers not only to this tragedy, but the tendency of people, perhaps unwittingly, to turn their back on love). Despite Marge's deception, Grace is about to learn the truth Marge has always been afraid to tell her: Marge's mother's story has been secretly made into a movie that's quickly becoming the world's hottest ticket.

There are also some side stories that awkwardly protrude from the main plot like rusty nails on a two-by-four: Grace and her boyfriend Luke (Michael Esper) are media students trying to make a documentary, Marge has a strange on-again-off-again relationship with her decades-younger graduate student Albert (Austin Lysy), and Marge's onetime flame Cookie (Molly Price) is campaigning for her senator husband on a white-hot White House bid.

But none of this adds up to anything: Problems are arbitrarily assigned and resolved; nearly every character enters, exits, and speaks as if he or she read the script (a running gag-inducer involves departing characters uttering identical trite goodbye wishes); and except when discussing sex (which makes up a surprisingly large portion of the first act), no one ever sounds like a human being. (At the very least, no college students I know say things like "My generation can't change the world; we can only change the channel"; to my ear, that's an adult's arch view of young-adult speak, a comment about them more than a comment from them.)

At least they live like human beings - scenic designer Louisa Thompson has created a cozy, homey refuge, packed with so much warmth and detail that it seems wasted on Schulman's superficial writing. So do the actors, although one imagines that if they had personalities as vibrant as Thompson's rose-colored carpeting and warmly inviting atmosphere, this would be a slightly more felicitous group.

The only thoroughly successful performance is O'Connell's; she somehow manages to incorporate the absurd happenings and even more absurd dialogue that surround her into a robust recluse of a woman. If you never understand the disconnect between what she preaches and what she practices, it's only because Schulman's explanations aren't convincing; O'Connell is, as much as anyone can be, throughout. The other performers, who include Angel Desai as a deceptive, bloodthirsty Hollywood columnist, aren't as lucky.

Price has it especially difficult - in one embarrassing scene, she's reduced to reciting unconvincing campaign rhetoric that's meant to disquiet us by its mechanical insincerity, but is too mechanically insincere in its construction to be remotely believable. Price, who soldiers through the scene with a deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes, comes alive later when playing Marge's dead mother but overemotes with such robotic intensity that it's hardly an improvement.

Both scenes are meant to suggest the ways love frays and fades, and how painful moving on (or staying put) can actually be. Ultimately, though, both scenes play as comic rather than serious, and do little to strengthen Schulman's contention that truth and love go hand in hand in cleansing and enriching the human spirit. When at the end of the first act Marge says to Cookie "You have no soul," it's a sentiment you can relate to all too well.

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Manic Flight Reaction
Through November 20
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 5 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral