photo courtesy of John Lamb

Play:        “Distracted”

Group:        Stray Dog Theatre

Venue:        Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

Dates:        February 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19

Tickets:    $18-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org

Story:    Mama and Dad are exasperated.  Their 9-year-old son, Jesse, is loud and rambunctious, prone to cursing out loud and unable to complete tasks at home or at school.  His teachers recommend that he be tested for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a neurobehavioral developmental condition that was diagnosed in nearly 5.5 million children in 2009 alone.

While Dad believes that Jesse is more or less acting like a normal boy, Mama is more influenced by outside experts. Various teachers and psychologists offer their recommendations for sundry types of therapy, including prescriptions for drugs such as Ritalin.  While Mama prefers that Jesse remain off-stage, his clamoring nonetheless dominates all manner of proceedings. Amidst the relentless cacophony of cell phones, TV remotes and neighbors chatting about trendy subjects in parenting and mood-altering drugs, Mama learns that Jesse isn’t the only one distracted in the modern world.  The particular challenge for her and Dad is what to do specifically about Jesse.

Highlights:    This two-act comedy by Lisa Loomer is receiving its local premiere following its original production in Los Angeles in 2007 and a run on Broadway in 2009.  Loomer, who collaborated on the screenplay for “Girl Interrupted,” shows a knack for contemporary dialogue in all its surface shallowness.  Justin Been, in his directorial debut, pulls a variety of tricks out of his theatrical bag to present a generally entertaining interpretation of Loomer’s somewhat appealing look at an increasingly perplexing problem in modern society.

Other Info:    While each member of the cast contributes some clever bits in this sitcom approach to a sober topic, Stray Dog’s production stands out most clearly in two scenes featuring Michelle Hand and Colleen Backer.  These two veteran actresses have the most assured approach to comedy in the ensemble, and watching them interact as the frustrated Mama and an oblivious psychologist, respectively, is the highlight of the evening.

    Hand deftly delivers comic lines in all manner of wacky scenes that range from the cluttered kitchen that seems to serve as a makeshift office for her floundering freelance work to puzzling sessions with myriad counselors, who range from indifferent to ineffectual.  Backer contributes a droll portrayal of the distant psychologist as well as a waitress more interested in cell phone conversations than listening to her customers’ requests.

    John Reidy is fine as Dad, showing our suburban father’s exasperation with trendy diagnoses that seem to eliminate normal childhood as a possibility.  Jenni Ryan and Katie Puglisi portray a pair of suburban mothers who all too readily capitulate to the drugs of the day, while Berklea Going is quite effective as a neighbor girl with some disturbing approaches to problem-solving, including ‘cutting’ herself to relieve stress.

Adam Thenhaus and Melissa Harris essay the roles of several professionals of dubious value, and young Garrett Ramshaw delightfully fills the stage with an animated voice that emanates mostly off-stage at the whim of his Mama.

    Been’s pacing lags badly at times, most notably in the second act as Loomer’s many scenes are established.  His clever set design, though, allows for a creative flow of characters into the action as they emerge from a series of panels that hang haphazardly to mirror the modern world.  Less successful are Been’s projected overhead images that at first are amusing but then grow merely wearisome.  Gary Bell’s costumes, Tyler Duenow’s lighting and Been’s sound design enhance the action on stage.

    “Distracted” is one of those modern plays that has something interesting to say but quickly fades from memory, even in a classy production such as this one.  Its ‘pop culture,’ repetitive gloss to an increasingly serious problem is merely distracting in its execution.

Rating:    A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.