CAMBRIDGE — On the night I saw Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted,’’ MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle delivered a pre-show talk in the Central Square Theater’s small studio space about the ways digital devices have transformed interpersonal communication.
But the 20-something guy in front of me didn’t hear many of Turkle’s insights. He was too busy checking his cellphone and cracking jokes to his buddy. During the play, he was seated across the aisle from me, where his cellphone glowed in the dark as he read e-mail and sent text messages, ignoring the actors, 20 feet away. After intermission, he did not return.
It was as if he had stepped out of Loomer’s script, a living illustration of her point — and Turkle’s, for that matter.
In a narrow sense, “Distracted’’ is about a married couple’s frantic attempts to find the right treatment for their 9-year-old son after he is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. But Loomer has broader satiric points to make about a more generalized form of cultural ADD, one that stems from our fixation on the large screens that surround us at home or work and the smaller screens that we carry around with us. The result of this self-inflicted sensory overload is familiar by now: a collective inability to focus on our lives even as we live them.
Have these points been made before? Obviously yes. But part of a playwright’s job is to give theatrical form to The Way We Live Now. Loomer does that in a fresh, arresting, and persuasive fashion. A coproduction of Underground Railway Theater and Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, “Distracted’’ is directed by Wesley Savick at the hurtling, pulse-quickening pace the play requires.
This is not to say that “Distracted’’ is an unalloyed success. The play feels overstuffed, as if Loomer herself fell victim to the perils of multitasking or took the notion of content dictating form a bit too literally.
In Stacy Fischer, though, “Distracted’’ boasts an actress entirely capable of carrying this kind of heavy load while navigating the play’s abrupt tonal shifts from broad comedy to urgent drama. Fischer last performed at the Central Square Theater two years ago in Nora Theatre Company’s “Hysteria, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis.’’ Her wrenching portrayal of a mysterious young woman who confronts a dying Sigmund Freud earned Fischer an Elliot Norton Award from the Boston Theater Critics Association.
In “Distracted,’’ Fischer plays a woman in her 30s who has recently quit her interior design job so she can work at home as a freelancer and devote more time to her son, Jesse. That home, designed by Sara Brown, is sleek and antiseptic, with blond-colored furnishings. Virtually the only splashes of brightness come from sizable screens on either side of the stage that, as the play begins, are filled with images of blue sky and white clouds, as if even the outdoors has to be mediated by technology.
We don’t see Jesse until the end of the play, but we often hear him, shouting questions and demands at his parents from offstage. (At the performance I attended, he was portrayed by Brandon Barbosa, who alternates with Alec Shiman.) While smart and creative, Jesse is clearly a hyperactive handful. In a meeting with his parents, his teacher (Michelle Dowd) spells out the disruptions he causes in school.
Jesse’s father (an intense Nael Nacer) insists that his son’s behavior belongs to the benign category of boys-will-be-boys. “These are symptoms of childhood,’’ he says. “Is childhood a disorder now?’’ He may not be the most reliable guide on this matter: When the couple sees a specialist to talk about Jesse, he looks down at his cellphone; when they go out to dinner, he peruses his tablet at the table.
Then again, his resistance to labels is understandable in an era when we fling them about so blithely. Loomer has fun with our tendency to offer off-the-cuff diagnoses, armed with the therapeutic vocabulary that is now part of the mother tongue. “Boy, she’s a little obsessive-compulsive, isn’t she?’’ the couple’s neighbor (Kerry A. Dowling) snipes about a high-strung mutual acquaintance. “I wonder if that’s why her son has the anxiety disorder.’’
When Jesse’s mom goes along with the recommendation of specialists (Debra Wise and Steven Barkhimer) that the boy be put on Ritalin, his father is furious, and their marriage hangs in the balance.
Fischer is wonderfully expressive throughout, traversing a range of emotions — confusion, guilt, anxiety, determination — as a mother struggling to figure out which approach will allow her son to lead a happy life. But, like her child, she is never still; it’s as if she thinks perpetual motion, an ever faster-moving stream of information, is an answer in itself. She — and we — should probably know better.