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The "No Neck Monsters" Have Parents

BrattyKid Maggie in Cat in a Hot Tin Roof calls children "the no neck monsters."

As annoying as they may have been to Tennessee Williams 54 years ago, they have nothing on what's out there now: youngsters running amok and shrieking in restaurants; taking up seats in subways and buses that should be occupied by adults; and utilizing every room in their house as private playpens. Many are ill-mannered, unfettered and, well, just plain obnoxious.

But it's not their fault. They've been molded in their parents' image, and their misguided notions of childrearing. This past season, these new moms and dads—all wretchedly non-functioning—have surfaced on and Off-Broadway in such shows as Distracted, God of Carnage, and Next to Normal.

 In Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, a kind of "Virginia Woolf" as farce, two sets of educated, middle class parents (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden) convene to "discuss" a fist fight that took place between their pre-adolescent sons.

It's hardly worth a phone call between the parents, but in this child-centric universe, they find it necessary to have a face-to-face in order to debate, dissect, analyze and explore what happened. Tempers flare and the four adults emotionally disintegrate—all of it fueled by excessive alcoholic intake, bucket loads of puking, and the surfacing of old corrosive resentments and recriminations.

Despite their claims, they are self-absorbed narcissists who have no real interest in their sons. If they did, they'd be at home talking to them, instead of battling with each other. They are role models of infantilism and through example they have managed to present their boys with behavior that not surprisingly leads to fisticuffs.

GodofCarnageLikewise, in Distracted, Lisa Loomer's topical comedy about how parents deal with their son's Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), those suffering the greatest ADD are Mama and Dad (Cynthia Nixon and Josh Stamberg). Their lives are defined by meaningless email communications, truncated messages on cell-phones as other calls interrupt, and relentless channel surfing.

The major conflict between Mama and Dad centers on whether they should put their hyperactive son on Ritalin. Mama is all for it, while Dad is vehemently opposed, arguing his son is just being a normal boy and does not have a medical problem.

Arguably, he has a point. Here's another: why can't these parents ever say "no" to their child in a firm voice when his response to virtually everything is shouting obscenities? Interestingly, until the very end of the play, the audience never sees the child, just hears him bellowing invectives as his deranged progenitors race around to kooky experts and alleged healers for answers.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but like children in many contemporary families, he is a constant and miserable presence without ever being seen as a human being responsible for anything.

But nowhere is a parent less functioning than Diane (Alice Ripley) in the dark musical, Next to Normal by Tim Kitt and Brian Yorkey. A manic, depressive who visits lots of shrinks, undergoes electric shock treatment, and lives on "meds," Diane is the classic absentee parent, who is regrettably still on the scene. Her teenage daughter (Jennifer Damiano) feels neglected and emotionally torn and when Diane decides to go off her "meds," the girl collapses and begins experimenting with drugs.

One can't really blame Diane because she can't help herself. Her culpability is not the point. It's the creators' belief that this woman is "next to normal" that's troubling. Is it any wonder the kids are so whacky and objectionable?

Tennessee Williams understood the tyranny of those no neck monsters. This season's playwrights bring to life the creatures that spawn them, circa 2009.

-- Simi Horwitz

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