By David A. Rosenberg
The program says it all. “I shoved everything I was thinking about into a blender,” writes author Carly Mensch, “and ‘Oblivion’ came out.” The comedy-drama by the talented and skilled, not-quite-30-year-old author is having its world premiere at Westport Country Playhouse, after extended workshops. Directed with a fine attention to detail by Mark Brokaw, and acted with finesse by a first-rate cast, the evening would seem to have everything going for it.
That “everything” soon turns into over-abundance, until you wonder if the title has it all wrong. Instead of “Oblivion,” how’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or, better, “Too Much Ado About Everything”? Mensch has so much on her mind that her first line is all too prescient: “Just say it and we can all go to bed.”
Ostensibly a tale of a family brought to a crisis point when teen-age daughter, Julie, lies about where she spent the weekend, this is also about moral relativism, religion, marriage and parenting. Julie has said she was scoping out Wesleyan when she was actually at a Christian retreat. And now she has decided to convert.
Her Jewish father, Dixon, is, at best, nonplussed. Her non-Jewish, non-religious, “lapsed Marxist” mother, Pam, is considerably less tolerant. Feeling left out, Pam takes out her frustrations on her daughter. “We believe in nothing,” she says. To which Dixon replies, “I believe in democracy, education, family, you.” That about covers it.
Julie’s best friend is Bernard, an amateur film-maker enamored of the distinguished film critic, Pauline Kael, to whom he sends letters in hopes of having her look at the movie he’s making with Julie as the protagonist. That Bernard, an avid fan of Kael’s, doesn’t know the critic died years ago only adds to the evening’s contrivances.
Kael’s isn’t the only name dropped. Nietsche, Malcom Gladwell, Roland Barthes and John Grisham show the family’s cultural bona fides. Mensch herself is a worshipful fan of the late David Foster Wallace who has a short story collection named “Oblivion.” Here the title refers to that old bugaboo, the generation gap, as in the abyss over which we all stand, trying not to fall.
Dixon is a writer, or tries to be. Retired from law after a “minor breakdown,” nursing an enlarged prostate, smoking pot, lolling about the Brooklyn apartment in his bathrobe, he’s working on a racy novel about a nubile French gal in Provence. But this, too, proves more a distraction than integral to the play.
Luckily, offbeat actor Reg Rogers is Dixon. Loose-limbed, marching to his own drummer, Rogers can get a laugh just the way he says the word “philosophical.” Johanna Day makes the dyspeptic, vindictive Pam into a woman fighting for some dignity.
Katie Broad is the wise-beyond-her-years Julie, unbowed by such authorial lines as “You’re a moral relativist, you and Dad. You don’t believe in right and wrong.” As the recognizably human and empathetic Bernard, Aidan Kunze breathes fresh air into the surrounding aridity.
Mark Brokaw’s fluid direction finds pockets of credibility, while Neil Patel’s set, a reminder of Joseph Cornell boxes, ably serves the play’s transitions, as does Japhy Weideman’s lighting. Michael Krass’s costume design shouldn’t be overlooked, with each bit of clothing delineating character.
“Oblivion” is an earnest, intelligent play more notable for its glancing blows at au courant topics than evoking emotions. Author Mensch makes a case for listening to her inner self. In the process, she neglects listening to her characters.