Let's give plaudits to playwright and scriptwriter ("Nurse Jackie" and "Weeds") Carly Mensch for her willingness to tackle a subject that's rarely if at all been tackled in contemporary theater, but one which indeed challenges the limits of tolerance from a very surprising perspective.
The play in question is called "Oblivion" and it is now playing through September 8 at the Westport Country Playhouse in a frustratingly uneven production by director Mark Brokaw, noted for chaperoning any number of new productions to the stage including works by Nicky Silver, Douglas Carter Beane, Lynda Barry and Paula Vogel. It's essentially a comedy, and a warm-hearted one at that, with some serious underpinnings designed to make an audience think and perhaps squirm for a few seconds. And that may be the play's ultimate problem--it doesn't take the story far enough into the dangerous direction in which it seems to be heading. It aborts the conflict in a clean and touching way, not having to face the issues that have initially been presented.
Set in one of the newly gentrified parts of Brooklyn in a spacious converted warehouse loft, "Oblivion" immediately introduces us to Pam, an HBO executive, and Dixon, a former high level corporate lawyer, who we see questioning their teenage daughter, Julie, about her whereabouts the previous weekend. Julie's incomplete and unrealistic details about a supposed college visit to Wesleyan with her friend Bernard have cued the parents that Julie is lying to them, despite her reassurances that nothing untoward happened on the weekend and that she certainly didn't get into any kind of trouble of any kind.
Pam, the daughter of communist-leaning college professors, and Dixon, a secular Jew, have raised Julie, who attends the exclusive prep school Dalton in Manhattan, to what they consider to be a positive liberal and free-thinking principles, with large elements of trust and freedom. Julie herself has emerged as a promising girls' basketball star at the school, which allows the playwright to raise suspicions in a number of directions. But it also emerges that Julie knows that the truth will disturb and anger her parents, her mother in particular.
It's somewhat of a funny shock when the truth does come out, because it does indeed turn our suspicions on their heads. For Julie, it turns out, was away on a church retreat with Bernard sponsored by a Baptist church in Queens. For an atheist mother and a secular father, Julie rightly fears, there could be no greater betrayal.
Mensch treats the dilemma for gentle and light-hearted laughs, as the parents grapple with the news ("What if she becomes pro-life?" Pam suddenly ponders.) to the accompaniment of Dixon's rapid-fire banter. She also presents the issue within the growing friendship between Julie and Bernard, an overweight, Asian-American student who feels as isolated from other kids at school as Julie does. He's trying to make a film that seems composed almost entirely of close-ups of Julie's face and has an obsession with the film critic Pauline Kael, the seriousness of which does lend to some sympathetic understanding of this lost boy.
As a result, Mensch doesn't deliver on the big issue play one may think she has planning. She merely sticks her big toe into what emerges as a gentle controversy about religion, just as it turns out her character Julie will ultimately do. We catch a glimpse of the impact of the situation on the family, whose recognition of their various positions on the issue does get them out of a rut they seem to have devolved into. But deeper notions of spirituality within a non-spiritual household and the political incorrectness of seeking religion in hipster Brooklyn is only slightly touched upon, particularly in a dramatically welcome confrontation between mother and daughter over who is bigot in this case, the aspiring Christian or the person who's gut reaction is to condemn the seeker for her choice of roads to explore. Pam's outraged and totally ridiculous demand that her daughter be grounded and condemned to her room is one of the more ironic delights of the evening.
But the play doesn't click along too evenly. Pam, as written and as performed by the normally remarkable Johanna Day, comes off as much too dour. Yes, Pam may now be the reluctant breadwinner of the family, but it's hard to build up any sympathy for her character. Pam is accused of those around her as being too judgmental and Day has certainly captured that aspect all too well. Particularly in contrast to Reg Roger's Dixon, whose lines he delivers in his enjoyably quirky rat-a-tat style that seem to be a defense against his own fear of his wife's all-consuming judgment, in light of his breakdown at work under the pressures of working for what he feels was, and what Pam had all along told him, a ruthless, unfeeling American corporation. There are a few plot twists regarding a novel that Dixon is writing that only serve to underscore the daily struggle to endure the unlikable Pam, although Dixon's self-centeredness and aloofness which was tolerated by the family while he was in the corporate world is also proving to be a major problem as well.
The two teens are played by noticeably older actors and this makes it initially difficult to pinpoint their characters' ages until well into the play. That, coupled with the notion of visiting colleges, places them slightly older than they are meant to be, making it difficult to believe their naivete and shelteredness at first, despite some clear signs of slower social development. Both Kate Broad as Julie and Aidan Kunze as Bernard have a tendency to speak their lines just a little too loud and occasionally a little too exclamatory, and they slightly overplay the awkwardness quotient.
The first act takes its time in developing the story partly because the introduction of the frequently silent and insecure Bernard into the household is done in baby steps, first involving complicity with Dixon and later into an unfair situation generated by a deliberately duplicitous Pam, proving that she can be an even more accomplished liar than her daughter. There are also some interspersed scenes, not all of which are necessary, of Bernard imagining conversations with Kael, which are designed to show his fragile confidence developing.
The evening ends on a positive note of hope, particularly for Bernard of all people, with perhaps some tentative understanding between Pam, Dixon and Julie, though by the nature of the characters Mensch has created they're all going to need to be at their most understanding as certain of their journeys are continuing, albeit in slightly different directions than earlier.
Neil Patel has created the warehouse loft to emphasize its size and width. We see long main room that serves as kitchen, dining room, and work space for the family, with other rooms off to the side somewhere. The rough brick walls, yard-long shelves and the high windows add to the effect, but it leaves few options for varied staging other than in a line along the length of the room. Other settings are conveyed by fixing light on an upper section of the shelves to suggest the signage of a laundromat or moving a bench in front of the long family table to create a set of bleachers. Japhy Weideman's lighting helps suggest the changes in location and nicely sets the time of day and night within the loft. Michael Krass's costumes help define each character, from Pam's suits to Dixon's extremely relaxed lounging wear to Julie's athletic clothes and Bernard's ill-fitting and unsymmetrical outfits.
It is rewarding to see Mensch take on the challenge of exploring how a non-religious family confronts a member's nascent spiritual search, but "Oblivion" doesn't do it too deeply or comprehensively or for that matter controversially. As she admits in an essay in the program, she is trying to make nice here and not create characters and by extension I guess an atmosphere that folks could find abhorrent. Those are legitimate goals, but some more edge and a little more depth might have been helpful, but that doesn't seem to be the play that she wanted to write.
For tickets and information , call the Playhouse at 203.227.4177 or visit the website at www.WestportPlayhouse.org.
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