Carly Mensch must have wanted to accomplish something meaningful in writing “Oblivion.” At least that’s the feeling we had after sitting through the unenlightening production of her play at the B Street Theatre this week. But whatever intention she had was lost on us in the Buck Busfield directed two-act production.
The four-member cast tries hard, and the set design (by Sam Reno) is first rate. But the story is pretty lame, the characters are fairly predictable, and the resolution they all achieve is just a little too obvious. The result is a tedious night of theater with far too few real laughs and virtually no pathos that delivers a meaningful message.
That’s a pretty harsh critique, but it’s how we felt as we left the theater, and it’s how we still feel now, two days later. The story is set in the present in New York City. There, Pam and Dixon are the parents of sixteen-year-old Julie, who is a star on her basketball team but is otherwise seemingly bereft of friends, other than Bernard, a nerdy kid who is into film-making.
As the story begins, we learn that Julie is angry at her mother, who is put off by her daughter’s lack of communication. Pam is the more dominant/assertive spouse. Dixon looks for ways to avoid conflict and otherwise enjoys a good high from the copious amounts of pot he smokes. He gave up an apparently lucrative career as an attorney and now fashions himself a writer of a novel he is working on. They have raised Julie without any religious training. Pam is essentially an atheist; Dixon calls himself “a cultural Jew.”
Bernard is Asian. His family belongs to a Korean Baptist Church. There, Julie becomes enamored of Christianity, which doesn’t endear her to Pam. (Dixon is less put out by the idea but wants peace in the family.) As the story unfolds, tension develops between the spouses, Bernard discovers something that blunts his idealism, and Julie explores her feelings about life. That’s about it.
As stories go, it’s fairly standard stuff, albeit the tale would have resonated a lot more maybe 50 years ago. Then, it would have even been cutting edge; now it’s just a story about how people relate to each other when they are going through changes in their lives. And since none of it is told in such a way as to create any real drama or to bring out any flat-out funny dialogue, it just unfolds without much impact.
The cast includes Kurt Johnson as Dixon. He plays the role much as we envision Jeff Daniels might. He makes Dixon slightly unappealing and goofy (as when he attends his daughter’s basketball game and doesn’t know what to do or how to cheer) and is far less funny than Ms. Mensch probably envisioned him being. Elizabeth Nunziato is Pam. She succeeds in showing outrage, so it’s probably the script that makes her seem slightly unbelievable.
As the youngsters, we found Julie Balefsky more believable than Arthur Keng, but neither were especially memorable performances. Mr. Keng does a lot of whining and has a succession of truly weird monologues where he verbalizes letters he has supposedly written to Pauline Kael, the deceased movie critic. Why those scenes are included in the script escaped us. Ms. Balefsky’s portrayal of the daughter works best when she expresses disenchantment with her mother (but how typical for a 16-year old!). It’s less effective when she experiences her baptism and her first kiss.
In the end, the play is more the disappointment than is this production of it. The talent at B Street is too strong to waste it on the pabulum this script offers. Mr. Busfield needs to find better material to justify the work he requires of his actors and to give greater satisfaction to his audiences.