Review: OBLIVION at City Theatre

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by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.

A stoned out lawyer, Dixon (Quentin Mare), and his frazzled, uptight wife, Pam (Lisa Velten Smith), struggle with their daughter’s unusual decision in Carly Mensch’s “Oblivion.”

It’s become a postmodern trope; the only way to rebel against iconoclastic parents is to go in the opposite direction and become more traditional. The plot has been around since “Family Ties.” In this case, Dixon and Pam’s daughter, Julie (Julia Warner), wants to be baptized Christian.

The aforementioned daughter has been sneaking off to a Korean Baptist Church with her bestie, Bernard (Christopher Larkin). The play opens when Pam suspects that Julie didn’t go off to a trip to Wesleyan University as planned. Secretly, she and Bernard went off to a church retreat where ate a pancake breakfast, prayed, and learned wood-carving. Her parents suspect that she was up to much more devious activities. It turns out that said parents would have preferred that she went off on a drug-filled orgy instead. When the secret is finally revealed, it shatters the family’s domestic bliss, sending Pam into a total tizzy. To be fair, most of the domestic bliss between Dixon and Pam comes after a few puffs off a joint.

Once the cat is out of the bag, Pam finds other cats in the bag; unlocking a secret about her spouse that sends her into Tizzy Number Two.

P.S. There’s also a strange subplot about Bernard’s infatuation with late film critic Pauline Kael. It’s odd because Bernard knows intimate details of her life, except that she passed away in 2001 (it’s the first thing that comes up when you Google her).

“Oblivion” is a comedy, and, in the traditional form, it is. It’s just not laugh out loud funny. The play does pose a few very interesting questions. Is spirituality an archaic notion in the 21st Century? Can God give someone a sense of fulfillment, if He can’t be seen or heard? If you have an idol and a laptop, shouldn’t you know if your idol is living or dead? Sorry, the Pauline Kael thing is hard to get past (probably because I’ve also worshipped at her altar).

There’s one other niggling thing that could be fixed in a rewrite. Julie doesn’t seem to be learning anything about forgiveness at the Korean Baptist Church. She rails against her mom in the entire first act. It makes it easy to sidle up to Pam’s POV. She talks a lot about Jesus, but walks around with deep-seated anger at her mom. What is that church teaching her?

It seems “Oblivion” was written for film or television. While brisk to-the-point scenes are appreciated over lengthy, wordy ones, the scene changes are overwhelming. Director Stuart Carden could have simplified the movement a bit, especially since the actors are pulling double-duty as stage hands. It’s like aerobic exercises with a sofa and coffee table instead of barbells.

Luckily, these furniture movers happen to be extraordinary actors. Carden cast it well. Mare hands in a stellar performance as the clueless but caring father, Dixon. He also has the best lines in the play. Larkin is delightful as the budding auteur, Bernard. Warner was perfectly cast (there’s a “Julie & Julia” joke in there somewhere, but I just can’t get at it).

Though it was tough to sympathize with Pam, Velten Smith won me over with a simple gesture in the final scene.

Side note: Pam also had the best wardrobe. Cheers to Costume designer Angela M. Vesco for making look comfortable yet elegant.

Though it had a lot of moving parts, the set is a masterpiece from Gianni Downs. On Tuesday’s show, a few audience members were so enamored of the bevy of trinkets on stage that they wandered up onto the set during intermission and gawked at the gewgaws up close. Luckily, they returned to their seats before the ushers escorted them off.

There’s a lot of moving parts in “Oblivion,” metaphorically as well, and they do come together in a satisfying way. However, like Julie after her baptism, I stood up and said, “Is that it?” The City Theatre has set unusually high standards, and, because of that, I was expecting something greater.

(“Oblivion” runs until April 26 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, call (412) 431-4400, or go to




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