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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cynthia Nixon and Josh Stamberg.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Some plays ask you to become a part of their world; others demand it. But very few grab your collar and yank you into them, while turning your protestations into laughs and gasps of bedazzlement. Lisa Loomer's Distracted does exactly this, and Mark Brokaw's production of it for Roundabout (at the Laura Pels Theatre) only makes it more dizzying and captivatingly indigestible.

It suffers from only one problem. As with the revival of Our Town that opened last week, to describe too much is to risk curdling the surprise that's so crucial to its success. Some things may safely be said: it concerns a child who may or may not have Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), clever projections (by Tal Yarden) are integral to the atmosphere, and actor Peter Benson is giving one of the season's grandest comic performances in a series of tiny roles that, by traditional standards, shouldn't be that funny. See, he plays... Ah, but that's going too far.

For the moment, let's stick with the sad and strange case of the mother (a sophisticatedly frenetic Cynthia Nixon) and father (Josh Stamberg) who are coping with their nine-year-old son, Jesse (Matthew Gumley), and the bad behavior that's wrecking his school and home life. Jesse can't concentrate, make decisions, or even be bothered to treat his parents - or anyone else - with respect. So he generally resorts to screaming and fit-throwing to get what he wants. His teachers and doctors are sure it's ADD. Dad, however, is positive it's because, well, Jesse is a nine-year-old boy. The mother essentially sides with the doctors, but joins her husband's wariness at loading up Jesse with Ritalin or any other drug-of-the-month, and is thus unwilling to ever accept a second or even third opinion.

Everyone wants the same thing: order. But its exact nature is different for everyone, and those incompatible views of it form the basis for the show's central questions about youth, health, and designer drugs, which have likewise become a central question in American culture. And had Loomer simply stopped there, she might have had herself a smart little issue play, good for a modest run if a considerably briefer period of residence in your mind.

But as she did with her domestic-help drama-comedy Living Out, which premiered at Second Stage in 2003, she merely uses Jesse's affliction as a springboard for a much larger issue. In that previous play, it was the responsibility parents bore to their children. Here, it's the responsibility society has to behave the way it too often insists others behave. And that's what makes Distracted so dynamic and special.

All the lightning-paced scenes, all the mind- and location-bending projections, and all the talking to the audience (which constitutes more than half of Nixon's dialogue) is not here, as it so often is, a replacement for dramaturgy, but an expansion of it: Loomer's theatrically representation of a breathlessly confusing modern existence. Loomer and Brokaw, who has conducted all this with pinpoint acuity, use every element of Mark Wendland's mock-industrial set, Michael Krass's lights, and David Van Tieghem's sound to throw you off your guard and thrust you into Jesse's mind.

No one involved lets you sit back and passively judge anyone's opinion; they remind you that your cell phone, BlackBerry, Internet connection, and TiVo haven't made you that much different from this troubled kid: Everyone and everything is implicated in contributing to our climate of distraction and desensitization. That also sets up one of the play's few structural weaknesses: supporting characters who pound in their attendant messages too bluntly.

Mimi Lieber and Lisa Emery are both excellent as the mother's keeping-up-with-the-Joneses neighbors, who have their own intimate relationships to ADD, but they, and Shana Dowdeswell as the self-hurting babysitter, feel like little more than plot devices to add peripheral ornamentation to what Loomer, Brokaw, and the lead actors have already ensured is scrupulously detailed.

Nixon is a delight as the mother, awash in warm desperation and the kind of in-a-crowd loneliness that anyone who's ever had a sick relative can relate to. Stamberg is both affecting and mysterious as the father, always giving you t he impression that he's holding back a piece of everything - except his love for his son. Gumley must create his entire character from the wings ("People only want to see a child on stage if he's singing show tunes," his mother explains, in a typical aside), and his voice is harsh, irritating, and irreplaceable as it touchingly highlights all the best and worst parts of Jesse's irrepressible individuality.

As good as Gumley is at transporting you to the front lines of this boy's battle for identity, Benson is even more adept. He occupies only one of the multicharacter tracks (Altea Mitchell and Natalie Gold are his cohorts, and they're highly credible their less-glittery parts), but unites all of his personalities beneath a compelling umbrella that forces you to reconsider your own views of a world forever in motion. This is no easy achievement considering his characters are an allergist, three different doctors (with three different opinions on the best course of treatment for Jesse), and...

Let's just say: something else, which won't be revealed here. Regardless, it's key, because it shifts your perspective from Jesse to his parents, and confronts you with the same question: Do you prefer what's raw and real or what's subdued and safe? Loomer doesn't pretend there's an easy answer, and she's not afraid to haunt you with that uncertainty - as well as many others. For her and for this play, asking is more than enough. But it's the presentation of all those questions, as much as their content, that makes Distracted so trenchant, so moving, and so exciting.

Through May 10
Roundabout Theatre Company Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout Theatre Company

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