By Marlene S. Gaylinn
Each season, Westport Country Playhouse strives to present a variety of plays to suit its patron’s tastes and interests. In order to stir the mix, Artistic Director, Mark Lamos, likes to include at least one new work. This time he has chosen a play about an American family that is very hard to describe.
It so happens that the word “mench,” in Yiddish, refers to a person of integrity. Integrity must be foremost on Carley Mensch’s subject-list because the program notes state that her initial intention was to write about “lying.” The author also wanted to cover “moral relativism” and the difficulty of parenting. At the same time, she also wanted to incorporate a tribute to the novelist, David Foster Wallace -- along with a multitude of other ideas.
At first impression, Carley Mench’s “Oblivion” appears to focus on a rebellious teenager and her “open-minded” parents -- at least they consider themselves to be. Their defiant daughter is also a “free-thinker,” but she chooses to follow a different path. Simply put, the play begins with a conflict, peaks with a surprise revelation, and ends in a kind of uncertain harmony. “Uncertain” is the key word, for there seems to be little purpose to what we have just seen because of play’s abrupt ending. We are literally left in the dark -- expecting to learn what’s going to happen to this family next week. This formula reminds us of an “All In the Family” TV episode -- which is not surprising, as Mensch’s daytime job is writing for sit-coms.
But wait, that’s not the whole story. Beneath the play’s simple framework, there’s another level of expression to be considered. It’s Mensch’s philosophical ideas, sharp wit, and her use of symbolism that appears to be the most important factor. If you get at this, you’re okay. If not, it’s the writer that has taken on too much of a challenge.
I may be reading more into this, but keeping in line with Mensch’s treatment, her play’s title has several layers of meaning. Depending on its use, “Oblivion” can refer to being “indifferent,” “forgetting,” “ignoring,” or “forgiving.” So on one level, we can associate the “forgiving” part with loving parents who tend to overlook their offspring’s angry outbursts and insults. Going deeper, the title may also refer to the play’s ambiguity -- and further still, the observation that Nature is oblivious to values we create and hold dear. After having said all this, according to Mensch, “Oblivion” is simply the title of a Tom Cruise movie based on a work by Wallace, the novelist she adored -- so go figure it -- the jokes on us.
Whatever you think about the play’s structure and meaning, it’s certain that Carley Mensch takes this opportunity to tackle topics that may be too sensitive to discuss in mixed company. For example, her characters are pretty blunt when they poke fun at the origins of religions. She also targets hypocrisy, and the wide spread unquestioning of out-dated dogmas. The Mormons get a particular beating.
Well, criticizing religion is usually considered taboo -- even for outspoken, open-minded, Westporters -- a community of special folks who never squirm with embarrassment over controversial subjects. However, under Mark Brokaw’s careful direction, we understand the characters and their irreverent puns elicit lots of laughter throughout the production.
The play’s action takes place in a large, living space that is appropriately ambiguous as the play -- forcing the audience to use its imagination. Neil Patel’s set resembles a cathedral because of its high ceilings, enormous windows and colored panes. It could also be considered converted warehouse loft. In any event, we get the feeling that what we’re seeing is a microcosm of society. At the same time, with a minimum of props and creative lighting by Japhy Weideman, the space magically serves as a family room, library, office, dining and laundry room and focuses on individual scenes. Because there are no defined doorways, the action is linear. Entrances and exits are made through the wings and blackouts and flashbacks separate the passage of time.
Kathie Broad effectively plays the defiant teenager, “Julie.” She’s disrespectful, her words are cold and sharp, and her insults sting like a bee. Aidan Kunze, her compliant friend in deed (not need), is an Asian-Baptist named “Bernard.” Like the saintly dog, he follows Julie’s lead and serves as an onlooker to the play’s action. Most of Mensch’s thoughts are expressed through Bernard’s soliloquies, and his delivery is admirable.
Julie’s parents, “Pam” (Johanna Day) and “Dixon,” (Reg Rogers), are intelligent professionals who pride themselves as being open-minded. Yet, when it comes to raising their own daughter, they realize that they have the same concerns of most parents. And so, when Julie arrives on the scene, after mysteriously spending a night away from home, they naturally fear the worst -- that their daughter was in serious trouble. Because of Julie’s non-answers, protective instincts unexpectedly emerge, as the parents try to find out where she’s been. The defiant teenager issues nasty insults and the parents counter with lectures about lying. Finally, they underhandedly recruit Bernard to solve the mystery.
During the prolonged, family arguments are revelations of the parents’ true values. Pam and Dixon convince themselves that they are open-minded Atheists and define themselves as cultural Jews. Blinded by their background and social class (Dixon is an ex-lawyer) the couple takes it for granted that their views are more sensible than the majority’s. The humor is that Pam and Dixon are actually conforming elitists bound by the same prejudices of the people they ridicule. Therefore, when the parents finally discover that Julie attended a religious retreat with Bernard, and accepted Jesus Christ as her savior (that is, for the time-being) -- so much for “open-mindedness.” However, the parents eventually simmer down (we don’t know why) and their fickle daughter returns to the family fold (for whatever reason you care to invent).
If anyone has the ambition to make sense of all this -- perhaps it’s the fact that life does not have to make sense. It’s like the making of a movie. Symbolically, Mench’s character, Bernard, idolizes a long dead filmmaker as if she were a goddess. He can’t explain why, but his ambition is to follow in her footsteps. Likewise, we continue to create our own fairy tales, desperately hoping that the film doesn’t split during the best parts, and that the show will go on forever. But then, I may be weaving my own philosophy here.
To sum up, this is an unconventional play about ideas rather than individual characters. There are no universal truths that can be agreed upon, and therefore the playwright cannot lead us anywhere -- so be prepared to leave unsatisfied.
Plays through Sept. 8
This review appears in "On CT & NY Theatre" - September/2013