Los Angeles Theater Review: ON THE SPECTRUM (Fountain Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on March 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Ken LaZebnik’s On the Spectrum, which opened last week at the Fountain Theatre, belongs to a genre known as Theatre of Identity, aka Social Issues Theatre; the idea is to promote a particular cultural identity – in this case, autism. Plays like the currently running Tribes (which deals with deafness) were written to shed light on minority issues that had previously been given short shrift in the theater. Sarah’s War, (Israel/Palestine conflict), Interlopers (transgender), and Night Over Erzinga Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.(Armenian genocide) also spring to mind. The problem with many of the newer Social Issue Plays is that they often sacrifice storytelling for sentimentality. Also, they usually contain educational preaching and/or happy endings for the disenfranchised therein. Although these plays demonstrate varying degrees of efficacy, depending upon on their production values and the subject matter (which is obviously subjective), they all avoid true greatness because the scripts tend to concentrate on issues, not story. Instead of being provocative, they veer towards an agenda-riddled After School Special.

Audience members craving to see themselves portrayed on stage are far more apt to ignore a script’s shortcomings. The thorny problem for critics, at least, is that multicultural sensitivity has tainted critical reception; negative feedback – even if it’s about the play’s thorny dramatic structure – can be perceived as prejudicial. Thus, problematic Social Issue Plays like On the Spectrum (another in the ubiquitous 90-minute intermissionless genre) tend to receive unduly favorable feedback.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.The Fountain has excelled at making silk purse productions from sow’s ear scripts, such as A House Not Meant to Stand and Opus, but it is a bit unsettling that such a pedestrian play as Under the Spectrum was produced. Created under commission by Mixed Blood Theatre of Minneapolis as part of its disability-themed “Center of Margins” festival, Spectrum already received its world premiere, but what happens when another company decides to produce it and the script is clearly knotty? Is it frozen? And if not, why would the Fountain not ensure that its dramaturgical shortcomings are fixed prior to production? I’m guessing that the subject matter trumped the uninspiring construction.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.Elisabeth, a cash-strapped divorcée, is riddled with angst. She tells her Asperger’s-afflicted son Cormac that she must sell their New York apartment if he is to enter law school. Cormac finds work as a web designer and visits his employer, Iris, a lovely and imaginative young woman who happens to be severely autistic. She is challenged with verbal communication and converses via computer voicing, but is so taken with Cormac that she looks past her shame and embarrassment to talk aloud with him. Cormac is likewise smitten with Iris and, after two meetings, they fall in love. Soon, the proud Iris – who believes the world should integrate to her way of being, not the other way around – will rethink the mythical domain she has created on the internet – called “The Other World” – and rejoin the realm of distractions, noisy subways and possibly hostile humans who treat those on the autism spectrum with disdain and misunderstanding.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.Backed by two extraordinary and empathy-inducing performances by Dan Shaked as Mac and Virginia Newcomb as Iris, the articulate LaZebnik triumphantly propagates information on autism. We learn about the pressures and stresses of a parent who attends to an obsessive, preoccupied, socially-challenged child. We learn that Asperger’s is a bewildering condition related to autism and can be mild to severe. We understand that autism can cause restricted interests, repetitive behavior, deficiencies in social interaction, and impairments in communication.

Yet when the mechanics of autism and technology are discussed, the play loses heat (although the way in which the young lovebirds eat M&M’s by color in alphabetical order was quite amusing). Mr. LaZabnik is so passionate about the subject that I invite him to create a play about people who happen to be autistic versus inventing characters to teach us about autism. Autism is beautifully demonstrated here, but the simplistic “love-conquers-all” formula doesn’t resonate because a) we don’t buy that these two have fallen in love so fast, b) the play lacks true conflict and an arc, and c) it all resolves far too easily.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.The mother is scripted as one mildly concerned with her situation, when a more active choice would be to have her at the end of her rope because she is now fully dependent on her son, just as he has been with her. But poor Jeanie Hackett as Elisabeth is relegated to folding laundry, making spaghetti, and keeping the peace with a child who could spin out of control at any minute. And while Ms. Hackett is luminous and vulnerable when she witnesses Mac and Iris together, the character’s easy acceptance of a situation fraught with jeopardy simply does not ring true. It’s a shame that director Jacqueline Schultz left Ms. Hackett floundering to create a full-bodied character out of what is lacking on paper.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.Newcomb’s wild gesticulations and Shaked’s inability to look others in the eye are among the astonishing physical mannerisms that make their portrayals so engaging – enough so that it distracts from the unengaging dramaturgy. But in earlier scenes when they communicated electronically from opposite sides of the stage, Schultz’ tennis court staging becomes a nuisance. Even with Jeff Teeter’s effective video design, Schultz, a terrific actress who has worked with learning disabled students, may have better served the project as a consultant rather than its director. Either way, the one role conspicuously missing from the staff and crew of On the Spectrum is that of dramaturg.

photos by Ed Krieger

On the Spectrum
Fountain Theatre in Hollywood
scheduled to end on April 28, 2013
for tickets, call (323) 663-1525 or visit http://www.fountaintheatre.com

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