WESTPORT — John Irving observed in one of his novels that adolescence is the point where for the first time, you lie to the people you love. Usually it happens when young people embark on some behavior that they suspect will not go down well at home. From the parents’ viewpoint it is alarming to realize that you are suddenly no longer in control of the child whose life you have so carefully and conscientiously shaped with play dates, music lessons, sports camp and meaningful family discussions around the dinner table.
For the adolescent, it looms as a necessary part of the quest for an authentic identity, the real self — as opposed to the plaster saint the parents imagine. And whether from fear of punishment, or simply a desire not to hurt the mother and father they have always loved, adolescents lie — about what they did, where they went, or who they were with.
Such is the subject of Carly Mensch’s Oblivion, which is receiving its world premiere at Westport’s Country Playhouse. The four character comedy-drama deals with the dilemma of Pam and Dixon, a highly evolved New York professional couple — she’s an executive with HBO; he’s a corporate lawyer turned would-be novelist — who suddenly discover that despite their liberal, open-minded, progressive approach to parenting, their 16-year-old daughter, Julie, has been lying through her teeth about how she has been spending her weekends.
Pam in particular is hurt and angry. After all, whatever Julie has been doing —along with her best friend, Bernard — why does she feel the need to hide the truth? Doesn’t she realize that they love her, and would accept with tolerance and understanding, whatever activity she has been experimenting with?
(Is it drugs? Booze? Sex? Gay sex? Just tell us! Just don’t lie about where you were!)
Put on the defensive, Julie — a high school basketball star at an exclusive private school — becomes sullen and offensive, in what turns out to be an escalating war that threatens to tear the family apart.
Of course Julie knows full well that what she’s been doing is guaranteed to rattle her mother’s sensibilities: she’s been going on religious retreats with Bernard’s fundamentalist evangelical youth group. Her parents are atheists. Dixon is nominally Jewish; Pam was the daughter of Marxist professors. Julie’s reluctant announcement that she has accepted Jesus as her Savior and is becoming a Christian fundamentalist is the last thing they were expecting, and the one thing Pam will not tolerate.
Playwright Mensch is a veteran scriptwriter for two popular television series, Weeds and (my personal favorite) Nurse Jackie, and she is clearly a master of the genre, combining wacky humor, behavior and language that you don’t find on network TV, with serious character interaction, particularly in the area of family dynamics.
It’s not merely a dramatic gimmick that has Julie choosing religion as the one form of rebellion that her parents cannot handle. Psychologically it makes perfect sense that having been raised with no rigid boundaries, she is attracted to something that seems both embracing and absolute.
In the hyper-sophisticated, highly competitive atmosphere of their school, Julie and Bernard are both social isolates, who have formed a dyad. He is the son of poor Asian immigrants, who live in Queens and expect him to win a scholarship to MIT. Instead he dreams of being a filmmaker, dresses outlandishly, and conducts imaginary conversations with Pauline Kael.
Julie feels disconnected from her sexually precocious classmates, and troubled by what she sees as her father’s descent into a neurotic depression, wherein he sits at home all day in his bathrobe, smoking pot and pretending to write. She sees in her vision of Jesus, the all powerful hero she once imagined her father to be, and in the evangelical youth group, the ideal family to replace the one she now sees as flawed.
But it is the real family that dominates the play, and the way they work through their conflicts is what grabs the audience’s attention and leaves them satisfied and entertained, like the best of Showtime.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Under Mark Brokaw’s direction, Katie Broad is totally (and insufferably) believable as Julie, Aidan Kunze is delightful as the drolly endearing Bernard, Johanna Day behaves badly but comes around wisely as Pam, and Reg Rogers wins sympathy as Dixon.
The coming-of-age dramedy continues in Westport until September 8. For more information or tickets, call the box office at 203-227-4177 or 888-927-7529, or visit the box office at the theater, 25 Powers Court in Westport. Tickets and information are also available online at www.westportplayhouse.org.
Special Events Scheduled
Westport Country Playhouse will host two special events, “Teen Night” and “Mom’s Day Off,” in conjunction with its production of Oblivion.
Teen Night, this week, and two offerings of Mom’s Day Off are geared to kick off the beginning of the busy school year, providing some relief before homework deadlines and afterschool activities fully take over, according to Tahra Millan, WCP’s Director of Marketing, and the mother with two children.
Teen Night, on Wednesday, August 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 the actors, Katie Broad (Julie) and Aidan Kunze (Bernard). Katie and Aidan 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 Oblivion ticket and 50% discounted tickets for their guests (parents or friends).
Mom’s Day Off, on Saturday, August 31, at 3 pm, and Wednesday, September 4, at 8 pm, will offer tickets at $30. For the Saturday program, moms will kick off the performance with a mimosa toast on the Playhouse patio. On Wednesday evening, the audience is invited for a lively post-performance salon discussion of the thought-provoking play in the Smilow Lounge on the mezzanine level.