Aug. 27--The show: Premiere of "Oblivion" at Westport Country Playhouse.
First impressions: Playwright Carly Mensch's contemporary family dramedy has an ever-changing focus. Is this a play about an adolescent search for spiritual fulfillment, about mendacious children and spouses, about liberal biases? Is it a satire on no-rules parenting? A commentary of the idols people worship? Is it a marriage-on-the-rocks play? A mother-daughter tug of war? Well, it's all of the above in this overloaded work that is receiving a well-produced run at the playhouse.
Mensch, a writer of TV's "Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie," has a way with words and sometimes characters and ideas, too. But too often things get a bit precious, convenient, scattered, lacking the clarity and truth the quartet of characters in the play are searching for.
What's it about?: Set in a casual-hip Brooklyn loft, two parents ("pretty chilled out people," self described by the dad) are dealing with their 16-year-old daughter Julie (Katie Brand) who is seeking to become more than the "moral relativists" that are her folks.
The progressive parenting of Dixon, the dad (Reg Rogers) and Pam, the mother (Johanna Day) is tested when they discover their daughter -- with the help of Julie's Pauline Kael-obsessed friend Bernard (Aidan Kunze) -- is going down an unexpected path of soul-searching.
Ah, the shooting self-righteous liberals in a barrel: There's some of that, especially of the Dixon, a once-corporate attorney who had a nervous breakdown and is working on his "novel." Pam, who works for HBO (curious, since the playwright has created works for Showtime), is struggling to keep her family afloat as she sees not only her daughter but her marriage slipping away.
Sounds interesting: It is but as it zigzags through its themes, under Mark Brokaw's direction, there's more than a few questions and inconsistencies that keep an audience from connecting fully to the characters and understanding what it is exactly on Mensch's mind.
Such as?: Bernard, presumably an intelligent teen, writes to Kael, clueless that she died 12 years ago and hasn't reviewed since 1991. (He hasn't heard of Google for a person he worships and writes letters to?) Kunze plays him with tender tentativeness that makes it unclear whether he's a sensitive artist or just slow-witted.
Julie's reversal at the play's end seems arbitrary and disconnected, though Broad's performance is appealing throughout, even when she is annoying. Pam's hardening in the second act -- and her own corny turnabout at the play's fadeout -- is disproportionate and unearned, though Day gives her character more layers than what's on the page. And as much as Rogers tries to infuse Dixon with uneasy charm and self-aware quirkiness, he's a mess.
A personal search for something to believe in -- whether you're a teen or an adult -- is certainly a worthwhile subject to explore on stage. But there's more work to be done in order for this play to step out of its own dramaturgical oblivion.
Who will like it?: Parents of teenagers.
Who won't?: Pauline Kael. (Oh yeah, she's dead.)
For the kids?: Some teens may like the searching, lonely young characters in the play; others are more likely to think, "Hunh? Whatever."
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Sometimes you just gotta believe, but sometimes you have to have something substantial to believe in, too.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: New play development should be encouraged and artistic director Mark Lamos wants to renew the Playhouse's commitment to new work. Last year's premiere of "Harbor" moved to off-Broadway last month. (I thought it was thoughtful, witty and moving. Many Gotham critics didn't agree.)
A top-tier theater has an obligation to bring new and unexpected works to its audiences. The risks are high, the process is difficult, but the rewards are worthwhile, even when a work isn't quite perfect. For all its flaws, "Oblivion" is still a play with ideas worth talking about. But perhaps it would work better as a series where there is more time to fill in the much-needed details about matters of faith.
The basics: The show runs through Sept, 8 at the theater at 25 Powers Court in Westport. Performances are Tuesdays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $65. Information at 203-227-4177 and http://www.westportplayhouse.com.
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