In Lisa Loomer’s lively playDistracted, now making its New York premiere at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre under Mark Brokaw’s direction, Cynthia Nixon plays a conscientious mother (listed only as Mama) beset by a major question: whether her 9-year-old son Jesse (Matthew Gumley) has Attention Deficit Disorder or is merely a “great kid” going through an age-appropriate obnoxious phase. Judging from the running R-rated commentary that the unseen Jesse lobs from the wings, he’d definitely try anyone’s patience. No wonder his mother is on a maintenance dose of yoga and the St. Francis prayer. But whether the child should be put on a daily dose of Ritalin is another story.
As she did in Living Out, Loomer shows a knack for portraying the challenges facing privileged yet conflicted contemporary mothers in such a witty, empathetic way that they don’t come off like whiny have-it-alls. You genuinely feel for Mama (who frequently breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience) as she sees her job as a freelance interior designer wither and her marriage to Dad (Josh Stamberg) strain under the demands of caring for a child who has been diagnosed — at least by an overextended school system and a network of profit-motivated drug-pushers — as deficient.
While debating the pros and cons of Ritalin with her much more laissez-faire spouse, Mama reads up on all the literature — and web headlines spool across Mark Wendland’s frenetically media-saturated set. She also consults with two neighbors, both of whom — covertly competitive Sherry (Mimi Lieber) and socially graceless, aggressive Vera (Lisa Emery) — have issues (and issue-plagued children) of their own.
Other outsiders have their own motives. Jesse’s teacher (Aleta Mitchell, who also plays multiple parts) has 27 students to attend to and just wants the problem that is Jesse off her hands. The various health professionals (Natalie Gold as a goopy family shrink, and Peter Benson as a homeopath and a succession of smoothie MDs) may be motivated by genuine concern, self-interest, burn-out, or basic indifference — but who’s to know? In an intriguing twist, Sherry’s troubled teenage daughter Natalie (Shana Dowdeswell) may be the only person who holds the key that will help Mama see through the morass of “informed” choices.
The evening rests squarely on Nixon, who must sustain an aura of frantic desperation from word one without ever wearing on our nerves, and the Tony Award-winning star is uniquely equipped to handle the task. Micro-moods flit across her features, and she is always on the move, whether slumping into a last-ditch lotus position, slapping together PB&Js, or screeching back at that young demon offstage.
For her part, Loomer studies the to-medicate-or-not-to-medicate controversy from every angle, like a child intrigued by a shiny object. Yet, in the end, Distracted is not a dull medical treatise but a wake-up call encoded in nonstop laughter.