Now even our plays are multitasking.
Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted” is the story of a boy with attention-deficit disorder and what it does to his family. It’s a satiric journey through multiple doctors and attempted treatments. But along the way it also makes the case that ADD is an apt metaphorical diagnosis for our times.
“The larger topic really is the ways in which we are distracted in contemporary society,” says Debra Wise, who is the artistic director of the Underground Railway Theater and also plays one of young Jesse’s doctors.
“I think it’s an interesting tension in the play,” Wise says. “What kinds of distraction are not a matter of choice, like a physiological condition, and what really are matters of choice, in which we choose to be distracted? And how does that affect our personal relationships? What’s the cost?”
Now onstage at the Central Square Theater in an Underground Railway production, the 2007 play is a comedy. But for many, the laughs may be of chastened recognition.
Jesse can’t sit still, can’t do what he’s told, can’t concentrate in school. The doctors blame everything from vaccinations to food additives to environmental toxins. They prescribe Ritalin, New Age regimens, and more. Dad says he’s just being a boy. Mom is at the end of her rope. And everyone is always changing the topic . . .
“It’s such a great snapshot of who we are right now, and I do include myself, not happily,” says Wesley Savick, the show’s director. “In this age of instant gratification and multiple sources of attention-begging, it’s the state of being distracted.”
Note that Jesse, while heard from constantly, is actually kept offstage until the final moments of the play.
“It’s not the earnest exploration of ADD that one may think it is. It’s really about the behavior surrounding it,” Savick says, “and living in a time where the information is coming that much faster. There’s that many more demands on our capacity to deal with it.”
Included is the challenge of deciding what information is credible. Jesse’s parents (played by rising local actors Stacy Fischer and Nael Nacer) must try to help their son (played at alternate performances by Brandon Barbosa and Alec Shiman) by sorting the scientific from the spurious.
The production is the latest sprung from Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a meeting of the minds between the two companies that produce at Central Square — Underground Railway and the Nora Theatre Company — and a group of scientists at MIT. Wise is codirector of the group.
Depicting our multitasking, never-all-there lifestyle onstage requires some calculation, Savick says: It’s there in the rapid-fire scene changes, in the moments when actors break the fourth wall or briefly appear to lose track of what scene it is, as if they too are distracted. It’s also represented in projections by lighting designer Bozkurt Karasu, who is technical director for the MIT theater arts program and works with New York’s Wooster Group.
“I’m very curious to see how hard [we] can drive the tempo of this thing, so that you can catch everything even if you have to speed up your receptors to do that, so it captures the universe that the characters themselves are in,” Savick says.
But there’s a line between stimulating the spectators and agitating them.
“You don’t want the production itself to become a distraction,” Savick says. “That’s the danger. You want the audience in a state where they can see the effects of distraction on others without being too prone to it themselves.”
“Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind,” written by Vonnegut and adapted by playwright Nicky Silver, will make its world premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company in November. SpeakEasy describes the play as a “whimsical” and “sardonic” comedy about our culture’s indecisiveness, which Silver (“The Lyons”) is assembling from a dozen different versions that the iconic novelist (“Slaughterhouse-Five”) and sometime playwright (“Happy Birthday, Wanda June”) left behind when he died in 2007. To be directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, it tells the story of a man who sets up shop as a decisiologist, offering professional help to the indecisive.
SpeakEasy’s 2013-14 season unfolds like this: “Tribes” by Nina Raine, Sept. 13-Oct. 12; “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind,” Nov. 1-30; “The Color Purple,” with a book by Marsha Norman and music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, Jan. 10-Feb. 8, 2014; “The Whale,” by Samuel D. Hunter, March 7-April 5, 2014; and “Carrie,” based on the Stephen King novel, with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, May 9-June 7, 2014.
Subscriptions are on sale now. Single tickets go on sale in August.
Sunday brings the 15th annual Boston Theater Marathon of 10-minute plays, presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre to benefit the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund. Also returning for a fifth year are Saturday’s Warm-Up Laps at the same venue.
This year the marathon offers 53 10-minute plays by 54 New England playwrights, produced by 53 New England theaters in 10 hours at the Boston Center for the Arts. This year’s playwrights include Robert Brustein, Israel Horovitz, Sheri Wilner, Patrick Gabridge, Gail Phaneuf, Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, and Ronan Noone.
The Warm-Up Laps on Saturday are free readings of three new full-length plays, each put on at the BCA by a different theater: “Windowmen” by Steven Barkhimer (noon, SpeakEasy); “Shelter” by Miranda Craigwell (2 p.m., Huntington Theatre Company); and “Widow’s Walk” by Deirdre Girard (4 p.m., Company One).
Marathon tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door: 617-933-8600 and www.bostonplay
Many Boston theatergoers know actress Mary Callanan from roles at SpeakEasy and the Lyric Stage Company as well as for her cabaret performances and roles with national touring companies of shows including “Mamma Mia!” On Tuesday, she’s slated to make her Broadway debut as the maid, Mrs. Pugh, in “Annie.” She’ll also be an understudy for Miss Hannigan, a role due to be played by “Glee” star Jane Lynch for eight weeks, beginning Thursday.
Joel Brown can be reached at