“Are you listening?” cries the father character in Distracted, a play I saw last weekend in New York. “Name one friend of ours who really listens,” he demands of his wife.
This fast-paced and often funny play focuses on a couple who are trying to decide whether to medicate their son, who’s been diagnosed with ADD. The play resembles a tv sitcom, with plentiful one-liners, quick-change staging and one-dimensional characters. There is the baffled mom wanting to do the right thing for her son; an angry, hyper dad who sees his son as just another rambunctious boy; an exhausted teacher; prescription-happy shrink, and on and on.
But there are poignant moments, especially when the play raises questions that transcend the narrow issue of treatments and diagnoses. In these moments, the audience is brought face to face with the deeper costs of our scattershot focus and punctured togetherness. Then, we begin to see the mini-tragedies of mutual inattention that we experience and set in motion each day.
The dad, for instance, is always hopping up and down, interrupting his wife, checking his pda and storming out of meetings with specialists. So it’s particularly powerful when he suddenly begins his lamentation about listening. Few of the characters truly listen to one another. They’re too busy pursing their own agendas. (How fitting that I sat in front of two couples who chatted to one another audibly throughout the play.)
Like many people, I noticed a seeming decline in mutual listening in our society, but until I wrote about this skill in my Globe column, I underestimated its importance and complexity. Listening demands practice, patience and critical thinking. It is a learned skill, and a building block of good relations. “Listening is really the skill of being in the conversation, rather than being in your own conversation,” says Jim Bolton, who does corporate training in listening.
We also can’t really consider how we listen, without thinking about our soundscapes. A new inter-disciplinary field of aural architecture has grown out of early acoustical engineering work. Barry Blesser and others in the field explore the aural aspects of physical spaces, including how they affect relationships. For example, consider how the hushed quiet of a church affects people’s interactions within. Or how television, jet engines and loudspeaker announcements affect the social environment of an airport. Soundscapes aren’t just a matter of volume control, just as listening isn’t simply an act of hearing.
At the end of the play Distracted, the mom has an epiphany: if her son has an attention-deficit, perhaps he needs more of her attention. In the closing scene, she and her husband quietly watch as her son dances to his favorite music. Playwright Lisa Loomer told the New York Times that she thought that this scene may be misinterpreted. But I think she got it right. Fractured, frazzled, absent attention is a modern syndrome that we can’t afford to ignore.
Postscript: After finishing this post, a kind soul sent me a Guardian UK blogger’s piece defending her right to twitter at the theater. Sending Tweets during a show may be rude to the actors and audience, writes Ruth Jamieson, but “not twittering is so rude” to her followers. “They are my priority,” she writes. Remember neuroscientist Susan Greenfield’s controversial remarks about how social networking tools may be infantilizing us – promoting instant-gratification, impulsivity, short attention spans?