Arts & Theater

Theater review: Clash of generations in B Street’s ‘Oblivion’

Julie Balefsky plays the daughter, Julie, and Arthur Keng is her filmmaker friend Bernard in the B Street Theatre production of “Oblivion.”
Julie Balefsky plays the daughter, Julie, and Arthur Keng is her filmmaker friend Bernard in the B Street Theatre production of “Oblivion.” B Street Theatre

If you remember the hit ’80s television comedy series “Family Ties,” then you’ve got a jump on the premise of Carly Mensch’s 2011 play “Oblivion,” now at B Street Theatre.

In the popular show, former hippies, still very much liberal, are parents confronting a values-based generation gap with their three high school-age children. It was successfully played for laughs.

In the alternately elegant and force-fed narrative of “Oblivion,” set in present-day New York, upscale progressive parents Pam and Dixon are confounded by the disconcerting lifestyle choice that their 17-year-old daughter, Julie, makes, throwing their household into emotional chaos. It’s played for both laughs and drama with positively mixed results.

In “Oblivion,” Mensch, who has written for cable television favorites “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie,” aims for much more than the superficial sitcom joke of the straight-and-narrow child flummoxing her too-cool hipster parents, though the playwright goes for that, too. Mensch takes a promising path, which at first seems to explore religion (as the play opens Julie has been secretly attending a Korean Baptist church), but the ideas widen out into a sketchy meditation on the different roles faith and belief play in our lives.

Parents Pam (Elisabeth Nunziato) and Dixon (Kurt Johnson) are a tastefully well-heeled, middle-aged, creative professional couple. She’s an executive producer of documentaries with HBO, and he’s a former corporate lawyer who left his job to stay home, write a novel and smoke pot. He writes a little and smokes a lot. They’ve raised Julie (Julie Balefsky) without any religious training though Dixon was born Jewish. Julie inhabits the schematic territory of a bitter and sullen teenager unless she’s hanging out with her platonic friend Bernard (Arthur Keng). Bernard’s an awkward, twitchy sartorial wonder who’s obsessed with filmmaking and the late critic Pauline Kael. It’s Bernard’s family church that Julie attends clandestinely because she knows it would upset her parents.

The play starts with a succession of short domestic scenes building the story. Sometimes undermining the play’s grander cause are forced details and lazy plot points that cause the audience to make somewhat-unconvincing excuses for the characters.

There are several short scenes throughout the play of Bernard narrating correspondence to Kael. Once he finishes the film he’s making, which stars Julie, he plans to send it to Kael in much the same way the young Wes Anderson did with his first film. Yet it’s difficult to believe Bernard wouldn’t know that Kael died in 2001 since he knows so much else about her. Similarly, when Dixon attends one of Julie’s games, he seems to have existed in a dimension where he’s never seen basketball played, even though his only daughter is a star of her high school team.

Once Julie’s religious interests are out in the open, her parents’ reactions become the play’s focus. Their divergent attitudes then put their marriage in the crosshairs as well. Director Buck Busfield and Mensch’s script allow each character room to grow. There are excellent performances all around lead by B Street veterans Nunziato and Johnson as the squabbling parents. Newcomers Balefsky and Keng make strong first impressions as kids searching in their own ways for something to believe in.

Although the ideas in “Oblivion” feel roughly manipulated so we can reach a gracious finale, the ending settles in pleasantly.

Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.

OBLIVION

What: West Coast premiere of Carly Mensch’s 2013 comedy/drama, directed by Buck Busfield

Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays through April 19.

Tickets: $23-$35, $5 student rush

Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org

Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

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