Carly Mensch’s perceptive new comedy Oblivion begins with a parent-teen standoff: mom Pam (Lisa Velten Smith) and dad Dixon (Quentin Maré) have caught their 16-year-old daughter Julie (Julia Warner) in a lie. She’s told them she spent the weekend on a college tour; they know (as parents do) that she didn’t. In true progressive-hipster fashion, they insist that it doesn’t matter to them where she really did spend her weekend; what matters here is that she’s being untruthful, that she’s showing a lack of integrity. They are the kind of liberal, openminded, freerange parents who have candid conversations about sex and drugs with their daughter. What could she possibly feel she needs to hide from them?
At this point, if you’re like me, you’re already way ahead of the next plot reveal, so I’m not going to hide it. Julie was at a church retreat, with her good friend the budding filmmaker Bernard (Christopher Larkin), and, of course, this is the one thing she could do that would rock Pam and Dixon’s resolutely secular world. Julie is one of those super smart, hyper articulate, master buttonpusher teenagers who knows how to make an endrun around adult sophisms, and her sudden embrace of religion precipitates a crisis of faith of sorts in her mother, as well, as Pam grapples with the contradiction between her self-avowed liberal openmindedness and her utter disdain for people of faith. Julie’s spiritual seeking, and the fact that she felt the need to keep it secret from Pam and Dixon, has a domino effect on the whole family. As the play proceeds, all four characters become unmoored, each coming face to face with their own personal form of oblivion.
Mensch’s writing is near pitch-perfect on the parent-teen dynamic in the play, and she is a sharp satirist of lefty hipsterdom. Gianni Downs’ scenic design cleverly gives a boost to that satire with a backdrop of large shelves showcasing the kind of artfully displayed found objects one associates with an imagined Williamsburg abode, only to later reveal those objects as props and set pieces in the course of the play. Director Stuart Carden has given the play a fluid staging that is punctuated, during scene changes, by projection designer Jordan Harrison’s sumptuous black and white film footage of the engimatic movie Bernard is shooting throughout the play, footage that clearly signals his unspoken and unrequited adoration of Julie. Warner and Larkin are utterly convincing as the play’s teenagers, clumsily navigating their way towards a future adult identity and trying on ideas and ideologies along the way. Maré is smart and funny as Dixon, giving the character a kind of daft self-awareness that yields to something much more honest as the play winds to a close. But it’s Velten Smith – a newcomer to Pittsburgh – who anchors this production with an emotionally and intellectually complex performance that any mother of a teen (or, for that matter, any teen daughter!) will recognize as the real deal.