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On the Spectrum


Dan Shaked and Jeanie Hackett
Ken LaZebnik's On the Spectrum is billed as a love story between two young adults with varying degrees of autism spectrum disorder. The problem with the play is that it shouldn't be a love story at all—the relationship formed between its lead characters doesn't have enough invested in it to earn that label, and any professions of love just ring hollow. But if you can set aside the love story elements of the play and think of it more as the birth of a really solid friendship, there's a lot to like here.

We are first introduced to Mac, a 23-year-old college graduate applying to law school. He's what you'd call "high functioning," despite his diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. He's bright and articulate, and doesn't initially present as anything other than what the folks in this community call "typical." But while he's trying to get into law school on his own merits—he doesn't want his diagnosis to lead to a sympathy admission—it's clear that his Asperger's is a huge part of his daily existence. He knows that he's different; he knows exactly how he's different; and he's well aware of the years of occupational therapy that have brought him to this point. At one point, his mother tells him that she didn't say something, to which he replies, "I know you didn't say it; you taught me how to read non-verbal cues." And it is only because Mac is this self-aware that the audience realizes just how far he's come.

The play starts when Mac's mother tells him that she's lost a good portion of her income stream. Mac is eager to help with finances - and he has a shiny new degree in graphic design - so he goes online to see if he can find a job. And it is online where he meets Iris.

The audience initially meets a bit more of Iris than Mac does, as we see her physically, while Mac just knows her through online correspondence. And it's pretty clear to us—but not Mac—that Iris is rather further along the autism spectrum than he is. Physically, she does not appear completely in control of her body, with arm and finger spasms regular occuring (terrific work from actress Virginia Newcomb here), and she doesn't appear to focus on anything. But, in the play, we hear her thoughts, and we know that this is completely untrue. Iris will focus her complete attention on six inches of her wall, getting lost in the act of examining every detail, until she is ready to move on to another six inches. And Iris can communicate through her computer. On the Internet, she presents as no more atypical than Mac—sometimes she'll get "stuck" on a thought, but can redirect when it's called to her attention—and she, too, is bright and articulate.

The real value in On the Spectrum is the way in which it introduces audiences to Iris. We first mainline Iris—hearing her thoughts undiluted. Later, when she meets Mac in person, she uses a computer-generated voice to speak for her. The voice is flat and emotionless; compared to Iris's thoughts, it is a weak substitute. And when Iris eventually sets down the computer and uses her own voice, her ability to communicate is weaker still. Had we not initially met Iris through her thoughts, our prejudices might have found it hard to believe that such an intelligent, funny, and opinionated woman lived in that body, which seems so disconnected to the world.

Iris is opinionated—she's an online autism advocate, questioning the presumption that autism needs to "cured," and arguing instead that neurotypical people should learn to accept and value autistics for the unique way in which they think. (One wonders whether this isn't just a defense mechanism on Iris's part, as the play makes it clear that her parents never gave her all of the therapy that Mac's parents gave him.) But she tries to make Mac see that Asperger's gives him certain behavioral characteristics of which he should be proud, not ashamed.

All of that is the interesting play that's inside On the Spectrum. It is dragged down by the love story. After about a month of Mac working on Iris's website, they meet for the first time. And a few minutes into their second meeting, we are, all of a sudden, in the middle of a different play—where there are big emotional displays, significant acts of sacrifice, and lifelong commitments. It is as though On the Spectrum was a three-act play that just skipped over the middle act (and smushed the first and third into one). It is completely implausible. Were one to chalk it up to overenthusiasm on the part of these two kids who've never been in a relationship before, Mac's mother's reaction to the whole thing makes that impossible.

Up until that point, though, it's an interesting, entertaining play that has something to say. Technical credits are superb (perhaps too superb—at one point I wondered how Iris could possibly type so quickly and perfectly that her computer-generated voice never spoke a typo) and both Newcomb and Dan Shaked give convincing portrayals of atypical young people.

On the Spectrum continues at the Fountain Theatre through April 28, 2013. For tickets and information, see www.FountainTheatre.com

The Fountain Theatre - Producing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor; Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs; Producing Director Simon Levy - presents On The Spectrum by Ken LaZebnik. Scenic Design John Iacovelli; Video Design Jeff Teeter; Lighting Design R. Christopher Stokes; Associate Lighting Designer Zachary Moore; Costume Design Naila Aladdin Sanders; Composer/Sound Design Peter Bayne; Prop Design Misty Carlisle; Production Stage Manager Corey Lynn Womack; ASM Terri Roberts; Technical Director Scott Tuomey; Publicist Lucy Pollak. Produced by Simon Levy, Deborah Lawlor, and Stephen Sachs. Directed by Jacqueline Schultz.

Cast:
Iris - Virginia Newcomb
Cormac "Mac" Sheridan - Dan Shaked
Elisabeth Sheridan - Jeanie Hackett


Photo: Ed Krieger


- Sharon Perlmutter






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