'Distracted' Brings ADD Debate To Stage Actors Cynthia Nixon and Josh Stamberg star in the off-Broadway comedy, Distracted. It's the story of a couple managing their son's Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis. They struggle with his behavior, bad grades, and the idea that he should be medicated.
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'Distracted' Brings ADD Debate To Stage

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'Distracted' Brings ADD Debate To Stage

'Distracted' Brings ADD Debate To Stage

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In Lisa Loomer's new play "Distracted," Cynthia Nixon and Josh Stamberg play parents whose 9-year-old son is diagnosed with ADD, attention deficit disorder. And they struggle with his behavior, with bad grades, with teachers and doctors and therapists and neighbors, and with the idea that he ought to be medicated.

(Soundbite of play, "Distracted")

Mr. JOSH STAMBERG (Actor): (as Dad) I also have a little problem with the idea of somebody giving my son drugs to keep him nice and quiet. Maybe I don't think nice and quiet is such a good thing.

Ms. CYNTHIA NIXON (Actress): (as Mama) I understand.

Mr. STAMBERG: (as Dad) But just like you, I'm trying to keep an open mind. So, what are you thinking?

Ms. NIXON: (as Mama) I'm thinking he has another 10 years of school -some school. He has to show up someplace between 8 and 3 o'clock for the next 10 years.

Mr. STAMBERG: (as Dad) School's a bore, especially for a kid like Jesse, who can't stand to sit there putting commas in sentences that don't mean anything to him or anybody else.

CONAN: Cynthia Nixon has won an Emmy and a Tony. She's best-known as one of the stars of "Sex and the City." Josh Stamberg appeared on that program and many others on TV. They join us now from our bureau in New York.

If you'd like to talk with them about their work or about the issues raised in this show, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And there's a conversation at our Web site, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And thanks to you both for coming in today.

Ms. NIXON: Thank you.

Mr. STAMBERG: Thanks for having us.

CONAN: Cynthia Nixon, I think what surprises most people, certainly me when I saw the play, is that "Distracted" is not a drama, but a comedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A very serious comedy maybe, but nevertheless, it's a comedy.

Ms. NIXON: Yeah. I think there is actually a lot of controversy about that among our audience members, that really - it hits people in a different way. I mean, some people come back and say, wow, that was just the funniest thing I've seen in years. I laughed, I laughed. I fell out of my seat, I was laughing so hard. And then other people come back and say, why do you call this a comedy? It's so painful. It's so upsetting. What do you mean a comedy, are you crazy?

CONAN: I laughed, I cried, I took a little Ritalin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Josh Stamberg, you play the dad in the play, and he's the skeptic all along. One of the great lines in the play is, you know, hey, attention deficit, short attention span, impulsiveness, risk-taking, isn't that a description of a 9-year-old boy?

Mr. STAMBERG: Right, childhood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STAMBERG: The idea is that's being a kid. So it's really about discerning how much is just being a kid and how much is this disease.

Ms. NIXON: And how much is being a boy in particular. I mean…

Mr. STAMBERG: Right.

Ms. NIXON: …most of the kids who get diagnosed with this are boys.

CONAN: And the situation as your character, Mama, describes it, Cynthia Nixon, is that this is rampant in society these days, that so many children are being diagnosed with this.

Ms. NIXON: Right. I mean, I think we - my character, in particular, really struggles when - even once we have the diagnosis, is this a real thing? Why is there an ever-increasing checklist of things that qualify as having this condition? And why, if isn't a real disease - if it's a real disease, why isn't there one single antidote? Why do we have to try this drug and this drug and this drug? And is it really an amalgam of different conditions that are all being lumped under this one category? And, you know, as Josh was saying, is it just a - kind of a lively kid?

CONAN: And, yeah, that in a sense we're, you know, disease-ifying childhood.

Ms. NIXON: Well, I think what happens in the play, and I think a lot of the comedy comes - you know, how it is in life when you start to look into something and then you see it everywhere. I think as we begin our journey of diagnosis and treatment, we start to see - everybody seems to have some form of ADD or autism or OCD, whether it's the doctors or the neighbors or my husband, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NIXON: And I think that that is one of the big questions that the play is asking: In our incredibly fast-paced, multitasking world that we're in now, where we're constantly bombarded with stimulation, don't we all have attention deficit disorder? Is it possible not to have attention deficit disorder?

CONAN: And Josh Stamberg, part of the - your part is, well, in a way you're reacting to all of this, you're exasperated; in a way, you're the Oliver Hardy here. You're just exasperated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STAMBERG: Yeah. Well, it's you know, we're up against a lot and it's hard to get an answer, and one answer that's clear and understandable. So, I think it's sort of the frustration of trying to hold the family together, trying to stay open-minded, trying to do what I think is right according to my value system, you know, as a dad, and trying to take care of your kid and your wife, you know?

CONAN: Which is not an easy thing to do, right?


CONAN: Our guests are Josh Stamberg and Cynthia Nixon, two of the stars of "Distracted," which is running off Broadway in New York City. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail us at talk@npr.org.

Ms. NIXON: Or Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, which we all…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Also there, but you're the skinny one. You're the skinny one.

Ms. NIXON: Yeah, yeah. Yes.

Mr. STAMBERG: Hey, whoa, whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jessica(ph) is on the line. Jessica calling us from Tallahassee.

JESSICA (Caller): Hi. I'm a professional who works with children with ADD. And I'm curious, in your movie, do you explore options other than - or in your play, I'm sorry - do you explore options other than medications, because that's a big part of what I do. And I'd like to see that brought to the public attention.

CONAN: Oh boy, do they. Yes. Absolutely.

Ms. NIXON: Yeah. I think we, you know, for us we are very reluctant to put our child on Ritalin, so that's kind of a last resort. We try many other things. We try homeopathy. We try psychotherapy. At one point in the play, we go to a clinic in New Mexico that's all about diet and environmental factors. And I mean, I don't want give away the ending of the play, but it's certainly - medicine is one of the things that is examined, but there is a whole range of possible treatments and non-treatments that are looked at.

JESSICA: Great. Thank you.

Ms. NIXON: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jessica. Indeed, there are all kinds of treatments. And there's one character who plays three different doctors in the show. And I have to say, I would accept one critic's description of each loonier than the last.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STAMBERG: He'd like that.

Ms. NIXON: I think, also, as the play goes on and our search gets more desperate, you know, we see the world through Mama's point of view. And the world does get loonier and loonier, and the characters do get more and more erratic.

CONAN: And indeed, this whole idea of attention deficit disorder and a medicated world, it turns out that's not just about 9-year-old boys.

Ms. NIXON: No. I mean, we draw references to President Bush. We, you know, I constantly see it in my husband. I'm sort of afraid to bring it up to him but, you know, he, of course, does not think he has it. But, yeah, we start to see it everywhere.

Mr. STAMBERG: We heard a really interesting statistic from a neuropsychologist, who came in to talk to us one day at rehearsal, who said that very often the father is deeply reluctant to medicate the child. Once they do…

Ms. NIXON: Or even accept the diagnosis.

Mr. STAMBERG: Or accept it at all, right. And then having done so, about three months later, father returns and gets medicated himself.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. STAMBERG: Yeah. Pretty - and it was something like 60 percent.

Ms. NIXON: Yeah.

Mr. STAMBERG: …or higher.

Ms. NIXON: It was a shocking statistic.

Mr. STAMBERG: Shockingly high.

CONAN: It's interesting you would say that, that psychologist came in to talk to you during rehearsal. So this is not something - you're just taking a playwright's words and saying, okay, here's my part.

Mr. STAMBERG: No. And I think, you know, clearly her own research is really deep, and having this doctor come in was really helpful. We had a bunch of great books that were useful. So there's a lot. And there is a lot to draw on. And I think daily, somebody hangs out after the show and says, I'm a psychiatrist, I'm a neuropsychologist, I'm a teacher, I deal with this daily…

Ms. NIXON: I'm a parent of an ADD kid or an ADD adult, you know?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Philip(ph). Philip with us from Oakland.

PHILIP (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Philip. Go ahead, please.

PHILIP: Hi, hi. Yeah, you know, I really appreciate this program. It's really great. And as a pediatrician, I run up against this all the time, usually with teachers who have classes that are overwhelming, and they would just as soon blame the child than to - and medicate the child -than to somehow address the issue of overcrowded classrooms. But one of the things I wanted to point out is that they often overlook the positive aspects of, quote, unquote, attention deficit. I, myself, you know, diagnosed myself with attention deficit, and I think it's one of the reasons I'm bilingual in Spanish. I've never had a Spanish course in my life and you listen, you learn, and you pick up on things a lot quicker when your brain isn't so tightly wired.

CONAN: And that's one of the things the comes out in "Distracted," in the play, Josh Stamberg, because the creativity of Jessie, the 9-year-old, is well, particularly stunted by the medication.

Mr. STAMBERG: That's right.

PHILIP: Yeah. Well, it's stunted by the medication. And we're getting to be more and more of a pharmaceutically driven medical profession anyway. I'm kind of glad I'm on the downside of having to do this because I don't particularly like (unintelligible) pharmaceutical companies, I like human beings. And I like them the way they are.

Ms. NIXON: I think there's also such a disparity in terms of what we value in a child and what we value in an adult. I mean, what the gentleman is saying that, you know, a kid, we're so interested in them being well-behaved and being quiet and sitting in their chair, whereas an adult, we're much more ready to embrace, you know, the mad genius who has all that creative energy, and we can see how successful and interesting those people can be. But in a child, sometimes we think, oh, we have to chill this kid out because they've got to stay in their chair and they've got to not talk unless they're raising their hand.

CONAN: Yeah. Interestingly, it's Thomas Alva Edison's high - or school that Jessie goes to, and one of the points made is Edison would've been ADD (unintelligible) school.

Ms. NIXON: Right. He would've flunked out of Thomas Edison…

Mr. STAMBERG: Right.

Ms. NIXON: …because he had ADD and he didn't - wouldn't line up with the school's priorities.

PHILIP: Exactly.

CONAN: Philip, as a pediatrician, do you get parents coming in to you and saying, I don't know what to do about this. I've had my child - has been diagnosed with this. What's going on?

PHILIP: I get it, at least, you know, once, twice, three times a week. And it is very disheartening because there aren't a lot of options other than the, quote, unquote, medication route. And I discourage it, and I try to get them to work with their children, read to them, read to them nightly, you know. That kind of approach to one-on-one interaction with your child serves a lot better than medicating him.

Mr. STAMBERG: And how confused are these kids coming in, just out of curiosity?

PHILIP: I, you know, I don't see the kids so much confused as victims of trying to understand why somebody wants them to change the way they look at the world. I don't think they can articulate it particularly well. But they just - they're sitting there and they are, you know…

Ms. NIXON: They feel fine but everyone is telling them that there's a problem.

PHILIP: Exactly, exactly. And there's something wrong with them.

CONAN: Okay.

PHILIP: Now, there are real situations where you do have hyperactivity and - but, you know, I think it's really very complex, and I don't put ADD in the same category as someone who is hyperactive.

CONAN: Philip, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

PHILIP: Thank you.

CONAN: And Josh Stamberg, I like the way you ask questions on the radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's genetic.

Mr. STAMBERG: Yeah, it could be a little legacy, there.

CONAN: Yeah. Josh Stamberg and Cynthia Nixon are with us from our bureau in New York. They both - among the stars of the off-Broadway show "Distracted." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Bakshi(ph) on the line. Bakshi from Mishawaka in Indiana.

BAKSHI (Caller): Hi. Yes. A very good program. And my son just got diagnosed with this condition. And I frankly always, sort of, almost made fun of this. But he's the youngest of five. And I have, you know, I'm a biochemist myself. And I went through the data. I looked at everything that the psychologist had to show me. And I'm to a point where I'm starting to have him go on medication. I mean, we're talking to the pediatrician, and see what he recommends.

CONAN: And this is obviously a difficult decision.

BAKSHI: It is. I mean, we've had four, I'd say very normal children, grow up in the same home. And going about life (unintelligible) productive and this is the youngest who came along much, much later. And I must say, I mean, he's not hyperactive or anything, he just has his own mind. He spends a lot of time thinking of other things than school work and…

CONAN: If there was one thing that convinced you that this was the right course of action, Bakshi, what is it?

BAKSHI: The fact that he takes an inordinately long time in making decisions. Once he's given the time to make decisions, he comes to the right decision. But if he's rushed, he invariably screws up.

CONAN: Thank you very much. We wish you and your son the best of luck.

BAKSHI: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And I wanted to ask you both, you both have children - separately, I should point that out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But nevertheless, I wonder how this show and this issue have changed the way you think about your parenting and your children. Josh, I know your daughter's very young.

Mr. STAMBERG: She's 11 months old, so it's definitely been eye-opening. And I think, you know, as a kid myself, ADD was - seemed so new, and now it seems so prevalent. It wasn't something I heard a lot about. But just through the course of rehearsal and research, seeing all of these pitfalls, I mean, it's pretty scary. You know, obviously I'm not to the point where it's part of my life directly in that way as a parent yet, but it's terrifying.

CONAN: Cynthia Nixon?

Ms. NIXON: I would say that one of the beautiful things about the play is, it really is about this condition, but it really is just about our world today equally much. And I just feel like the play explores a lot of different treatments and a lot of different scenarios, but in the end, I think the theme of the play comes down to, which I think is a message for all parents living in our hyperactive world, whether you have a kid with a condition or not is: the best thing that you can do for your child, which is what the doctor was saying is, you know, unplug, you know, decelerate, don't be moving at a crazy, adult, urban pace. You know, decelerate so you're at a kid pace, and sit there and look at your child, and try and just be with them.

CONAN: And everybody should do that. There's no question about that. But is that going to solve a problem on this order, do you think?

Ms. NIXON: Well, no. And I certainly don't mean to imply that our play is saying that's all you need to do. But I think our play is saying if you don't do that, nothing else can really follow productively.

Mr. STAMBERG: That's the crucial jumping-off point and starting place. I think it's really hard to honor your child's speed and not sort of bring your child to your speed, which is so different for a young brain.

CONAN: I think we have time to squeeze in one last call. Holly(ph) joins us from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Holly, we just have a little bit of time, I'm afraid.

HOLLY (Caller): Oh, okay. Well, I'm a 27-year-old adult with ADD. I no longer take medication. But as a child, I was on Ritalin for nine years. And my parents, when we talk about it now, they still don't understand the fact that I'm completely against it now because I don't think they want to address the addictive qualities that it has. And that's my comment.

CONAN: And do you wish that you'd never been put on it?

HOLLY: I do. I think I was very difficult. I stopped taking it at 16 without informing my parents and went through systems withdrawal. And I did not realize what was going on in myself at that time. And I don't - I think if children now do that, they might feel the same way.

CONAN: Holly, this should go on, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Appreciate the phone call.

HOLLY: Thank you.

CONAN: And we want to thank Cynthia Nixon and Josh Stamberg for their time today. Thank you both very much for coming in and for being in this play, which has so - does so much to illustrate a lot of the issues around attention deficit disorder.

Ms. NIXON: Thank you for having us.

Mr. STAMBERG: Thanks for the time.

CONAN: Cynthia Nixon and Josh Stamberg's play,"Distracted," is running off-Broadway in New York City.

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