Deirdre O'Connell and Jessica Collinsin Manic Flight Reaction
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Deirdre O'Connell and Jessica Collins
in Manic Flight Reaction
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"My generation can't change the world," says a character in Sarah Schulman's Manic Flight Reaction. "We can only change the channel." The playwright has crafted a dynamic, intelligent, witty, and often savagely funny satire on our contemporary culture and moral values.

Marge (Deirdre O'Connell) is a fiftyish university professor living in relative obscurity in Illinois; she is best known for having produced a volume about an equally obscure disciple of Freud's who put forth a theory called manic flight reaction. This method of avoiding one's problems is emotionally damaging, and Marge believes it's better to face life's difficulties head on -- but that philosophy is tested when a pair of unexpected visitors set in motion events that force Marge to confront her past.

The first visit is from her daughter, Grace (Jessica Collins), who arrives on Marge's doorstep one October morning with her boyfriend, Luke (Michael Esper). Having grown up under her mother's liberal influence, Grace has come face to face with an entirely different ideology now that she's in college. She sees Luke, a scion of corporate wealth, as her entrée into a different world. When she discovers that the openly bisexual Marge had a youthful affair with the woman who's likely to become the next First Lady of the United States, she and Luke hatch a plan to turn this knowledge to their own advantage.

The other visit that disrupts Marge's quiet existence is from Susan (Angel Desai), a tabloid reporter who informs Marge that the death of her mother is the subject of a soon-to-be-released major motion picture. Since Marge has never discussed the circumstances of her mother's death with her daughter, this could spell trouble.

Schulman's work attacks contemporary moral problems with a Shavian wit that produces such memorable lines as "There is a cure for homosexuality...fame" and "America wants a man who can satisfy his wife the way he'll satisfy the country." The plot, while important, is not the heart of the drama which instead lies within the language the characters use to debate one another.

Director Trip Cullman skillfully guides his cast through the stylistic turns within this dark comedy, which is sometimes akin to family drama and sometimes outrageously farcical. O'Connell is the center of the production, and she is simply phenomenal. She fully embodies her role, conveying volumes through vocal intonation and body language.

Collins is quite good as Grace, capturing both the petulant child and the conflicted adult that make up her character. Esper doesn't have as much to work with as Luke but fleshes out the role as best he can. The same can be said for Desai's Susan. Austin Lysy is hilarious as Marge's grad assistant and sometime lover Albert; the character is seemingly clueless, yet he ends up having more depth than initially suspected.

Molly Price tackles two disparate roles with mixed success. She's delightful as Cookie, the senator's wife on the fast track to the White House. Her carefully worded pronouncements and refusal to acknowledge the shared sexual history between herself and Marge go hand in hand with the deep-seated pain and even fear that seem to bubble beneath the surface of her hard-edged façade. Price is less compelling as Claire, Marge's mother, who appears in a flashback.

That sequence is one of the few missteps in Schulman's otherwise engrossing play; it comes across as overly melodramatic, and I wish that the playwright had found another way to convey the necessary information contained in the scene. Still, it doesn't spoil Manic Flight Reaction, which remains entertaining and intellectually stimulating.