“We, who live to please, must please to live” was Dr. Johnson’s rule for theater artists, but when playwrights strive to please, watch out. Case in point: Sarah Schulman’s Manic Flight Reaction, which seems woven from random swatches of dramatic fabric, chosen to please a variety of audiences, without regard for whether the swatches fit together or not. The result, despite some bright spots, practically unravels while you watch.
Just as Christmas arrives, Schulman’s heroine (Deirdre O’Connell), a disillusioned radical-feminist academic who’s fled New York for the wilds of Champaign-Urbana, is enveloped by crises: Her daughter, an incipient college dropout, turns up with a budding-capitalist-pig beau in tow; her grad assistant boy toy presses for a serious relationship; the female love of her life, now re-closeted and married to a right-winger with presidential aspirations, passes through while campaigning; and a movie about her mother’s suicide, which she witnessed (and which has made Mom a herstory icon), becomes the season’s biggest blockbuster.
The writing’s a mishmash of stale sitcom, media satire, family drama, and even (in the flashback to Mom’s story) ’40s women’s-mag kitsch. Director Trip Cullman keeps the busybodies bustling, but the naked paucity of sense shows through. Only O’Connell’s lambent presence supplies glimpses of humanity under the incessant, inconsistent jabber.