Young man with Asperger syndrome and young woman with autism fall in love to his single mom’s dismay.

Rarely has a play had as Hollywood-ready a “log line” as On The Spectrum, now getting its West Coast Premiere at The Fountain Theatre, and though Ken LaZebnik’s dramedy is not at the level of the stellar production it is being given at the Fountain, a pair of breathtaking lead performances and an extraordinary video/sound design are more than enough put it on every L.A. theater lover’s must-see list.

On the Spectrum_2 Dan Shaked is Cormac “Mac” Sheridan, a 23-year-old college grad currently applying for law school and, to all appearances, one who stands a very good chance of being accepted.

Still, there are clues from his everyday interactions with Elisabeth (Jeanie Hackett), the 50ish single mother who has raised him on her own, that her son does not fit into a “neuro-typical” mold.

Mac is in the habit of talking on and on about whatever currently occupies his mind, and rather pedantically so, seemingly unaware of whether the person at the other end of this “conversation” is showing interest or not. He is likely to take idioms literally, doesn’t seem to hear the nuances in other people’s speech, and appears to lack the “empathy gene” that we neuro-typicals rely on when unloading on friends with sympathetic ears.

On the Spectrum_1 The latter is the case today, as Mac reacts to Elisabeth’s news with an agitated “Does this mean we’re going to have to leave this apartment?” rather than a concerned “Mom, I’m so sorry,” and when Elisabeth tells him that yes, indeed, they may have to move into cheaper digs, Mac responds with something close to panic, as he probably would to any event outside his safe daily norm.

Searching for a solution to this financial family crisis, Mac determines despite Elisabeth’s misgivings to look for a job. He does after all have a college degree in graphic design. Surely he can find online work.

Mac’s job search leads him to a website called The Other World, one which takes its visitors into a Hobbit/Lord Of The Rings/Narnia-type fantasy universe, a website which not only fascinates Mac, it is one that could definitely benefit from his graphic design expertise.

On the Spectrum_3 What we in the audience already know, and what Mac will soon discover, is that Iris (Virginia Newcomb), the site’s creator, lives in her own world, one limited in real-life terms by the dimensions of the apartment she rarely if ever leaves, but one which, as far as her mind is concerned, has no limitations.

As outsiders, we might assume this strange, silent young woman to be schizophrenic. Her head, arms, hands, and body seem always in jerky, twitchy motion, movements that to an untrained eye could easily come across as bizarre, off-putting, and maybe even downright creepy.

It is here that Jeff Teeter’s astonishing video design and Peter Bayne’s remarkable sound design take us inside Iris’s head, revealing not only the world she inhabits but the very real, very intelligent, very human young woman she is.

Iris offers Mac the graphic design job (and a $17/hour salary that may make it possible for him and his mother to stay put) and before long the two of them are chatting away as if they’ve known each other forever, and not for a matter of mere minutes.

It takes but a short time for Iris to figure out that she’s talking with a fellow autistic, though Mac bridles at being lumped in with those whose autism is far more severe than his. He’s a college grad, on his way to law school, able to function in the normal world, and therefore merely “on the spectrum,” words that spark the activist in Iris. Their mutual autism is not a disability but merely a “difference,” and it is the neuro-typicals around them who ought to be adapting to their world, and not the other way around.

Politics aside, an instant connection has sparked between Mac and Iris that shows signs of leading to something much more.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that playwright LaZebnik will figure out a reason for Mac and Iris to meet face to face, and no degree in rocket science is needed to determine that Elisabeth will be none too happy about her son’s relationship with someone whose world is the one she’s spent the past two decades trying to help Mac “escape” from.

It is here that LaZebnik’s play needs, as they say, “work,” work that could have been part of the creative process of bringing On The Spectrum to fresh new life at the Fountain.

Unfortunately, it is my understanding that LaZebnik was not a hands-on presence during the production’s rehearsal period, thereby missing out on the opportunity to take his play beyond its current work-in-progress state.

On The Spectrum begs for a second act, one that would a) allow for greater character development, particularly of an underwritten Elisabeth, b) avoid the too-rushed quality of the ninety-minute play’s last half hour, and c) improve upon a too abrupt, too TV movie neat-and-tidy ending.

On the Spectrum_1 Regardless, the production being given LaZebnik’s play at the Fountain is about as perfect as imaginable given the imperfections of its script.

First of all, the Fountain has picked Jacqueline Schultz to direct. A Scenie-winning Best Actress for Park Your Car In Harvard Yard, Schultz’s extensive experience with learning-disabled students gives her unique qualifications to helm On The Spectrum, in addition to the guidance an “actor’s director” can bring to this type of project.

Newcomb has the showiest role, and as anyone who saw her performance in 2011’s A House Not Meant To Stand, the Scenie winner is precisely the gifted young actress to tackle it and dazzle. Though the majority of Iris’s lines are prerecorded, allowing us to hear the voice Iris hears in her own head, Newcomb’s body language is no mere ad-libbed improvisation. Rather, one has the sense that each and every movement has a meaning, and that if we could simply break the code, we’d understand her body language as easily as we do the words that come out of the Fountain’s speaker system. Equally remarkable is just how fully three-dimensional a young woman Newcomb gives us, one our hearts go out to and for whom we ache.

On the Spectrum_5 Though Shaked’s Mac is, by contrast, the more “normal acting” of the two, his role is no less challenging, the gifted young actor needing to trod the very thin line between authentic character and broad caricature. So spot-on is Saked’s work that an audience member remarked that during his PhD studies at MIT, he had found himself surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of Macs. Even to a layman like this reviewer, Shaked’s performance is a thing of beauty. It helps that Mac is the best-written of On The Spectrum’s three roles.  Still, in lesser hands, even fine writing would not have been enough for us to believe in and care about Mac, not despite his many idiosyncrasies but because of them.

Not unexpectedly, Hackett does her accustomed excellent work as Elisabeth, giving us the character’s anger, frustration, and unconditional love, even as we wish that LaZebnik had given the L.A. stage star more to work with, and even despite an eleventh-hour change of heart that it takes an actress of Hackett’s stature to make us come close to believing.

If ever credit for a production’s success could be said to be shared between director/performers and design team, On The Spectrum at the Fountain is that production.

Teeter’s video design, projected across the entire back wall of John Iacovelli’s terrific set, transforms two otherwise realistic apartments into Iris’s fantasy “Other World” in all its magical permutations, and in several extraordinary sequences, takes us on an R-Train ride from Mac’s apartment to Iris’s and back. How Teeter achieves his three-dimensional effects I cannot begin to imagine, but do so his does, and it is awe-inspiring.

Bayne’s original music score adds greatly to the dramatic impact of Teeter’s videos as do his sound design and R. Christopher Stokes’ imaginative lighting. Kudos go too to costume designer Naila Aladdin Sander’s character-appropriate outfits (and one “steam punk” gown in particular) and Misty Carlisle’s many props, including yak bells, laundry, Elisabeth’s “ancient” laptop, and other assorted paraphernalia.

Zachary Moore is associate lighting designer.  Corey Lynn Womack is production stage manager, Terri Roberts assistant stage manager, and Scott Tuomey technical director. On The Spectrum is produced by Simon Levy, Deborah Lawlor, and Stephen Sachs.

Having seen a number of West Coast Premieres that have benefited from up-to-last-minute rewrites, I can only imagine how much stronger a play On The Spectrum would have been given additional script work during the rehearsal process.

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine LaZebnik’s play getting a more stunning production than the one now running at the Fountain. Mac and Iris will make you see the world with quite different eyes, and you will be better for having spent an hour and a half in their presence … even if another twenty minutes would have helped make On The Spectrum the play it deserves to be.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 28, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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