Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Quick Hit Theater Review: Oblivion -- Westport Country Playhouse

Katie Broad and Aidan Kunze. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Oblivion
By Carly Mensch
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Westport Country Playhouse

By Lauren Yarger
What's it All About?
Well, that may be up to you..... Pam (Johanna Day), a successful HBO documentary exec and Dixon (Reg Rogers), a burned out corporate lawyer who has suffered a breakdown, find themselves in a crisis when their teenage daughter, Julie (Katie Broad), decides to become a Christian. The couple doesn't believe in setting any rules -- right and wrong is all relative any way -- but when Julie lies about where she was (at a church retreat instead of checking out mom's alumni, Wesleyan) they decide they had better do some parenting and get their daughter back on track.

Dixon is a little more willing to hear his daughter's side. He has a little bit of a tie with religion, coming from a Jewish background, and he is the only one Julie will speak to. She and her mother have a relationship that borders on contempt -- at least where Julie is concerned.

Pam is downright bigoted in her disregard of who who might be weak-minded enough to allow themselves to be brainwashed by religion (her parents were two Marxist professors). Socially awkward Julie's exploration of Jesus comes through hanging out with her only friend, Bernard (Aidan Kunze), whose family attends some kind of Baptist Church there in Brooklyn, and who is filming Julie for a film project.

Deeper in the plot about the religious experience is a message about the fact that we all worship something. Pam needs to be in control -- she goes to great lengths to worm information out of Bernard; Dixon loves his weed and is hard at work on something else he worships: a pornographic novel about a middle-aged man and a teen girl. Bernard worships a film critic named Pauline and a number of scenes involve his speaking out the letters he has written her in the hopes she will view his film. And Julie just wants to feel something. Anything.

What are the highlights?
Mensch (she writes for TV's "Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie" in addition to plays) has a gift for contemporary -- and funny -- dialogue. The characters deal with some very real emotions. There is a lot of funny stuff here, especially the really awful chapter Dixon reads about his protagonist and the French ambassador's daughter....

Rogers is the most comfortable in the skin of his character here. He enjoys the aging hippy who needs to find some way to take responsibility. This character has the most range of the four.

What are the Lowlights?
The play is interesting and keeps us engaged, but never delivers. We're left wondering what it all means, especially when Julie's intense conversion, which has propelled the action, isn't fully explained. Bernard's church is a little weird -- there is a bunch of Eastern and transcendental stuff thrown in there which has nothing to do with Christianity and Julie doesn't seem to really know who Jesus is. Her explanation of being a Christian: "You agree to believe in Jesus even though he's not really there..." The piece puts me in mind of other plays that tend to express the questions about religion the authors have in real life, but doesn't offer any answers (because they don't have them either).

Character development isn't too deep. Julie is hostile, but all the way through, not just toward her mother. She doesn't seem very fun to be around, so it's not hard to believe she doesn't have many friends. But why is Bernard an exception? We don't know. Bernard is kind of dorky and only has one moment where he seems to have a backbone (and Kunze doesn't seem at ease in the role). The technique of having Bernard write to Pauline is overused. Day seemed to be tripping over a bunch of her dialogue. Brokaw, with numerous Broadway directing credits, doesn't use a strong enough hand in directing to bring it all together. Even if he did, the play itself doesn't seem to know where it's headed.

Neil Patel's set is disappointing. All scenes take place on an all-in-one location that at first glance looks like the gym/library of a school with the back wall lined with cubby holes. Later, parts of it are used for the family's house, the basketball court at school, a movie theater, etc.

More information:
This world premiere of Oblivion runs through Sept. 8 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Tickets and info: 203-227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529, www.westportplayhouse.org,

Westport Country Playhouse will host two special events, “Teen Night” and “Mom’s Day Off,” in conjunction with Oblivion.

“Teen Night” on Wednesday, Aug. 28, will offer an opportunity for teens who are interested in any aspect of theater to meet in the Playhouse Green Room for pizza and soda at 6:30 pm, learn about the show, and have an intimate Q&A session with Broad and Kunze. They will talk about their experiences in the professional theater business and what it’s like to originate a role in a world premiere. Each teen attending will receive one complimentary ticket and 50-percent discounted tickets for their guests (parents or friends).

“Mom’s Day Off,” on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3 pm and Wednesday, Sept. 4 at 8 pm will offer tickets at $30. On Aug. 31, moms will kick off the performance with a mimosa toast on the Playhouse patio. On Sept. 4, the audience is invited for a lively post-performance salon discussion of the thought-provoking play in the Smilow Lounge on the mezzanine level.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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