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Theatre in Review: Uncommon Sense (Tectonic Theater Project/Sheen Center)

Michi Barall, Brian Hastert. Photo: Joan Marcus

Life on the autism spectrum is a big, complex subject, and, in embracing four distinct narratives about it, Uncommon Sense ends up so overloaded that at times it threatens to tip over altogether. The playwrights, Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris, have delved into their research with gusto -- using it to illuminate the plight of those with autism and the often-devastating effects that living with them has on those who love them -- but corralling it is another matter altogether. Given its relatively brief ninety-minute running time, this fast-paced, often-informative piece simply has too many items on its agenda.

Watching Uncommon Sense, one begins to wonder if the diagnosis of autism is so broad as to make no sense, given the vast disparity among the functional levels of the cases presented. Two characters are strikingly intellectually gifted but lack the ability to read social and emotional cues, while two others are incapable of taking care of themselves, let alone communicating with others. The treatment of their situations is wildly varied: Wrenching drama is made to share the stage, uneasily, with slick, sitcom-style comedy.

Dan, a tall, innately sunny young man, is possessed of astonishing mental abilities -- his mind is a storehouse of facts -- but, as the play opens, the only employment he can find is at a big-box grocery store; even there, he is barely getting by, thanks to his Asperger's-influenced behavior. His boss catches him ignoring his duties in favor of testing the pH levels of the soil in the planters in the garden department. "It's not fair to the plants to have them imprisoned here in a state of alkalinity," he says, by way of explanation. The boss replies that Dan is keeping a customer waiting at the deli counter. "Customer service is not where my best qualities can be leveraged," he says, cheerfully unaware of the impression he is making. The frustrated boss says, "Dan! You were hired to be where I need you to be." Dan, offering his own brand of advice, replies, "That's not good management. People need defined roles." Then he steps away to take a personal phone call.

Similarly, Jess, a college student, previously cycled through ten different high schools, largely, one suspects, because she knew more than her teachers and wasn't shy about it; before the play is over, she will have reamed out at least one professor. Demonstrably brilliant, she can barely handle normal social interactions, preferring to hole up in her dorm room (which is decorated with anime characters), playing video games. She speaks in a halting manner, accompanied by twitches that suggest an electrical storm breaking across her face. When Alex, another student, asks Jess to tutor him in neuroscience (so he can stay on the lacrosse team), she almost becomes unhinged at the idea of this intrusion into her rigid schedule.

At the other end of the spectrum is Moose, an adolescent who cannot speak -- he communicates only in groans and spends most of his time obsessively playing with an egg beater; the only thing that can distract him is the sight of a jellyfish. He lives at home with his parents, Emily and Gabriel, and their marriage is being sorely tested by caring for him; he often bursts into ungovernable rages and flees their control, running directly into traffic. Posing similar challenges is Lali, also in late adolescence, who doesn't speak, preferring to sit in front of a large bowl of rice, sifting through the contents in a state of wonderment. Achalaa, Lali's mother, brought her to the US from India, where, she says, "there was one speech doctor and he was servicing four thousand people;" here, she engages Amy, a speech therapist, for the Sisyphean task of getting through to Lali -- and, perhaps, getting something back.

The script has plenty of insightful, and often witty, things to say about the struggles of these characters. "My parents didn't want to label me," Dan says, adding, "They decided that there was a fine line between being autistic and being from the Midwest." Alex, feeling out Jess as possible dating material, asks her if she likes boys or girls. "I like people who are kind to me," she replies, heartbreakingly. Emily, explaining that she can never be away from her son, whom she guides constantly, says insistently, "Moose uses my brain. To keep him safe and to translate the world."

Both the Dan and Jess plotlines focus on their attempts at getting together with a partner, and, to their credit, the authors don't soft-pedal the difficulties such relationships pose. (As an anguished Jess says at one point, "I am a lot of work. I don't give back.") But they do pair Dan off with Sarah, a nerdish community theatre volunteer, whose favorite reading material is The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York -- a fact that instantly captures Dan's heart. ("Sarah, the probability of us both loving toxicology is very low," he says -- and he ought to know.) But their path to true love is strewn with too many isn't-Asperger's-cute touches: Dan's habit of imitating cats and horses in emotional moments, his insistence that the music of Bach "is like hammering nails" as opposed to his adoration of Mozart, and his habit of eating with his hands -- which leads to a joyous food fight, with noodles, between him and Sarah. Indeed, Sarah is a bit of a cartoon -- a little bit reminiscent of Gilda Radner's Lisa Loopner -- and, even so, their happiness, arrived at after some rough, disastrous dates, is hard to credit. (On their first night together, the fact of her snoring triggers a major crisis.) A last-minute, out-of-nowhere revelation about Dan doesn't help.

The Jess-Alex relationship is given a more honest treatment: At one point, a furious Alex says, "You know one thing I know autism is not? It's not an excuse to treat people like shit." But the authors never really make a case that a thoroughly average guy like Alex would want to complicate his life with someone like Jess, who consists of nothing but serrated edges. Andy Paris, who also directs, does manage a nice moment in which Jess, responding to Alex's request for a hug, arranges them into a kind of half nelson. But when they reach the breaking point, it's not that affecting, since their coming-together is so hard to believe.

The Moose narrative is far more gripping, as Emily falls apart under the stress of managing her son 24/7 while simultaneously fending off Gabriel, who wants to place the boy in a group home. (There's an especially touching moment when Emily takes a family selfie, both parents grinning hopefully into the camera while Moose looks into the distance, his mind a million miles away.) As Emily, Michi Barall is so full of desperate hope that it is even more fearsome when, at long last melting down, she vents her rage at the uncomprehending boy. Achalaa's determination to reach Lali is equally compelling, as is her furious insistence that her daughter will someday speak to her like a normal child. Even here, though, the authors can't quite stop themselves from turning the moment that Lali does finally express herself, via an iPad, into a pandering joke about Hillary Clinton; without paying attention, we have wandered into the land of the laugh track.

Still, Paris' cast is nimble, often treating the material with more delicacy than it seems to merit. In addition to Barall, who does some of her finest work here, the standouts include Jessica Almasy, almost unrecognizable as she shuttles between playing the constricted, lonely Jess and Amy, who gently tries to bring Lali into the real world; Purva Bedi as Achalaa and as Libby, Dan's exhausted sister, who wants dearly to marry him off; Andrew Duff, an otherworldly creature as Moose; and Brian Hastert, who manages to convince as both the college-age Alex and Gabriel, father of a nearly grown son.

John Coyne's set, a highly original contraption consisting of stairs, platforms, swings, scrim panels, and dangling chairs, is a kind of theatre of the mind -- but it has its awkward aspects. Jess' dorm room juts out over the stage, offering only a partial view of the scenes played at stage right. (A little bit of redirection could fix this in a jiffy.) The design also has some magical touches -- for example, the appearance of a school of jellyfish (made of umbrellas). David Bengali's inventive projections -- of equations, egg beaters, anime characters, and cataracts of rice -- add an extra layer of visual interest. Paul Miller's lighting sensitively reshapes the stage as needed. Jacob A. Climer's costumes are well-suited to each character; they transform the cast members who are assigned dual roles. Stephanie Robinson's melancholy piano and string arrangements are further supported by her sound design, which includes such effects as traffic, store announcements, and strains of Mozart.

The elephant in the room at Uncommon Sense is The Curious Incident of the Dog of the Night-Time, which so fluently used lighting, sound, and projections to get us inside the head of a kid with autism. Nothing in Uncommon Sense is so accomplished; also, watching The Curious Incident, I never once felt that Alex, the lead character, was being patronized in an effort to win over the audience, something that regrettably happens here. The difference is that, in trying to tell four stories, the authors do justice to none, falling back on easy laughs to woo the audience. It's too bad, because there are some hard, compelling truths here; this material deserves nothing less than their very best. -- David Barbour

(3 November 2017)

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