On the Spectrum: Theater Review

On the Spectrum Play Still - H 2013
Ed Krieger

On the Spectrum Play Still - H 2013

Autistic young lovers earnestly observed without condescension in this involving one-act. 

In this edition of Ken LaZebnik's play, an autistic man and woman played by Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb discover each other and, in the process, themselves.

LOS ANGELES -- Cormac “Mac” Sheridan (Dan Shaked) has graduated college and is applying for law school, a considerable accomplishment for someone diagnosed with Asperger’s, and no less for his divorced mother Elizabeth (a welcome Jeanie Hackett), who has devoted her life and compromised her career as a magazine photo editor to all efforts to improve his social functioning. When Elizabeth has her hours cut with the prospect of losing her job, selling their small New York apartment where Mac has lived his entire life may be an essential option.

Until, that is, Mac obtains his first-ever paying job, a $17-an-hour graphics design gig for a fantasy website called “Other Worlds,” and connects online with its proprietor, Iris (Virginia Newcomb), who turns out also to be autistic but lower down “the spectrum.” Mac starts to learn that the course both of courting and of collecting freelance fees can be frustratingly bumpy, not unlike the ride on the “R” train to Queens where Iris lives, a location down yet another spectrum.

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Attitudes and diagnostic nomenclature have evolved, and one may hope have progressed, in recent years, but lay discussions of autism are necessarily fraught with ignorant simplification on one hand and booby-trapped correctness on the other. Ken LaZebnik (best known for co-scripting Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion) has written three plays on the subject, and he can approach it with equal delicacy and confidence. Not unlike the theme of Tribes, running concurrently at the Mark Taper Forum, a romantic pairing opens up the consciousness of an “otherwise-abled” man to an alternate identity grounded in the particularity that makes him different from “normal” society. Nevertheless, since David and Lisa ham-footedly laid down the template for such romantic stories in 1962, deepened awareness may have added layers of subtlety and more empathetic identification, but the dramatic essentials still hit the same beats as Marty. For all its intelligence and well-observed behavior, On the Spectrum remains at heart a most conventional play with fundamentally didactic lessons to teach. To its credit, one comes away with bracing sense of enhanced understanding.

What elevates the experience are the conviction and detail of the vigorous and empathetic young performers. These incandescent actors give lie to the myth that the autistic have deficient inner lives. Iris cannot speak comfortably to others, usually resorting to an artificial voice connected to her furiously typed keyboard. Mac, on the other hand, talks in elaborately repeated patterns that simultaneously reveal innate obsessiveness and insistent care to mask it. Mac trenchantly notes that he has spent his life attempting to train himself to make eye contact and read the physical and vocal cues of others, even as society becomes almost exclusively “interactive” through their screens, ironically observing that while he was struggling to behave more like everyone else, they were all busy becoming more autistic.

It’s not easy to animate dramatic interaction conducted via the Internet, though it is becoming a stage staple in the effort to depict modern life. Director Jacqueline Schultz keeps the momentum brisk and handles the relationships with great empathy, and her avoidance of self-conscious sensitivity becomes itself a guide to a truer compassion for the limitations of all of us, all somewhere on some spectrum. 

Venue: The Fountain Theatre (runs through Apr. 28)

Cast: Dan Shaked, Virginia Newcomb, Jeanie Hackett

Director: Jacqueline Schultz

Playwright: Ken LaZebnik

Set designer: John Iacovelli

Video designer: Jeff Teeter

Lighting designer: R. Christopher Stokes

Music and sound designer: Peter Bayne

Costume designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders

Producers: Simon Levy, Deborah Lawlor, Stephen Sachs