Lisa Loomer’s new play, Distracted, is about dealing with a hyper kid in a world that itself seems to be on stimulants. On opening night, everything conspired to prove her point. Francesca Mari reports.
People push into the Laura Pels Theatre for the opening of Distracted like passengers boarding a plane. There is that same air of anticipation and of strangers sharing an expensive experience, one that permits them to look at one another a second or two longer than if they were on the street. I divide my stare between three women, seated in separate sections, each with pink streaks. New trend? 90s party? Streak for straightedge? After all, this is a play about whether it’s right to dose an overactive kid. As I approach the pink streak nearest me to ask about it, she begins kissing the boy beside her.
Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” blasts. Images project onto screens cut across the sides of the stage. Sites flit past: Facebook, CNN, Craigslist, Drudge, The Daily Beast. Three projected clocks tick time. 4:52 AM. I’m feeling frazzled when the curtain rises.
The phone rings and rings as Cynthia Nixon tries to finish screaming The Lord’s Prayer. She bangs around a wheelie kitchen island, packed with food and topped with an apple–of the iBook variety. “Mama,” as her character is named, stresses about her son’s inability to concentrate. Her concern rankles through the rafters towards nine-year-old Jesse, the manic in the attic, a body kept offstage until the mother-son pow-wow of the closing five minutes. He’s a regular boy, his bro-pop blusters. He ought to see a psychiatrist, his teacher aggressively insinuates. “Fuck you, mom, I hate you!” shouts Jesse. Mama doesn’t know what to do. She frantically deliberates, every line delivered desperate.
At intermission, I’m surprised to see the red velvet of my seat. I feel awful and anxious. I need a drink.
The line is too long.
“It’s stressing me out,” one girl says to her friend, “I’m glad we’re in the generation that just kind of missed the whole ADD /ADHD phase.”
In a brown corduroy blazer, the fourteen-year-old boy seated behind me with longish wavy blond hair is a part of the generation in the thick of it. He’s the brother of Shana Dowdeswell, the actress playing Jesse’s suicidal, pink-streaked babysitter, and next year he’s headed to Stuyvesant High School. His name is Jesse, too–like the kid in the play, whom, he tells me, his sister thinks he resembles. “I used to have trouble focusing” Jesse-the-brother confidently explains. “I like to think that I’m not as bad, but we all have our moments.”
Next to Jesse-the-brother sits his petite and put-together mother, Laurie Dowdeswell, who serves as Shana’s manager. When she first read Loomer’s script, Laurie tells me, “It was so scary and creepy and crazy!” She thought to herself, “Oh my god, it’s me, it us, Crap.” She gestures toward Jesse-the-brother. “We got all the way to the therapist recommending the psychiatrist. And he was like Yay, yay, yeah! Ritalin! And I was like [Cynthia] in the middle of the stage going AAAAH. And my husband was like NO.” In contrast to Nixon’s grating panic, the amiable calm of Mama Dowdeswell’s recollection is a relief.
But the resemblance isn’t why Laurie had Shana audition. “She just goes up for all the plays,” Laurie says. “We figure most the plays going up in New York are being done for a reason.”
Intermission ends. The drugs don’t solve anything. There are fewer jokes and more frenzy. Finally, Mama sits down on the living room floor and allows her son on stage. He dorkily dances along to a rap song. She smiles. Dad finds them together, also smiles. Curtain closes.
The audience sighs and sinks out. Lisa Loomer, a small woman with deep brown eyes, stands at the press line, a streak of pink in her shoulder-length dark brown hair. A reporter from NY1 extends a microphone and calmly poses questions. How’s he so calm? Quick answer: He says he plans to see the show next week.
I get squished up against a garbage can full of Heineken bottles and clear plastic wine cups. The audience has been drinking. Does that make the play a success? Is rattling the audience enough?
The director, Mark Brokaw, thumbs an iPhone. He says he wants the audience to be stuck “inside Mama’s head” and “to feel like a pinball bouncing around randomly until finally she stops near the end of the story to reboot and reevaluate.” He looks past me, his mind seemingly reeling in another direction. “I always thought of it as rebooting the computer. Let’s just stop, reboot again, and turn the machine on again and make a fresh start.”
“I’m happiest when people are arguing after the show,” Loomer says. “And I think the best way to get them talking is through their feelings.”
The problem is I don’t want to talk about anything. I don’t have feelings. I have anxiety.
The only way to end this evening is to ask a question with a concrete answer.
What’s up with the pink hair?
Loomer laughs. “I was hanging out backstage before the show, and the hair guy put some pink on me, and I said, Great, I love it!” I tell her about the other three chicks with pink streaks. “Oh really?” Loomer says. “I didn’t know that.”