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Theater review: 'On the Spectrum' a love story with a difference

Ken LaZebnik's drama at the Fountain Theatre presents a couple with autism, and the value of the play's advocacy shouldn't be underestimated.

March 19, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb in "On the Spectrum."
Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb in "On the Spectrum." (Ed Krieger )

Cormac is a law-school-bound young man living in a cramped apartment in New York's West Village with his financially strapped mother. Iris is a blogger, working from home in Queens, who hires "Mac" to spiff up her website.

The love story that develops between them in Ken LaZebnik's drama "On the Spectrum," now at the Fountain Theatre, would be traditional to a fault were it not for a salient difference: Mac and Iris are characters with autism.

Mac has Asperger's syndrome and lives a fairly mainstream life with help from his mother, who is there to nudge him when he gets stuck in one of his obsessive loops. Iris has profound communication difficulties, but she is proud of her perceptual uniqueness and thinks others should assimilate more to her way of being. She's tired of the onus always being on her.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

Evaluated purely in terms of dramatic craft, "On the Spectrum" is a rudimentary work of what might be called public service realism. The production, directed by Jacqueline Schultz, can't disguise the writing's pedestrian nature even with Jeff Teeter's video flourishes enlivening John Iacovelli's stamp-size New York apartment sets.

But the value of the play's advocacy shouldn't be underestimated. Autism is in the news increasingly these days, but the experience of adults grappling with some form of the disorder is underreported. Representation serves as an antidote to the isolation that's bred from ignorance.

The play's three performers — Dan Shaked as Mac, Virginia Newcomb as Iris and Jeanie Hackett as Elisabeth — honor the material with sensitivity and commitment. Shaked and Newcomb refuse to reduce their characters to their deficits. Instead, they show us individuals whose strengths (Mac's analytic prowess, Iris' creative fluidity) are tied in fascinating ways to their so-called limitations.

As Elisabeth, a photo editor contending with employment woes and a divorced mother dealing with a son's need for autonomy, Hackett lends compassionate understanding to a character who is having a tough time of her own keeping pace with the frenetically changing times.

Divergent worlds turn out to be a lot closer than they first appear. In LaZebnik's well-meaning play, there's a place for all of us on the autism spectrum.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

"On the Spectrum," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 28. $34. (323) 663-1525 or http://www.fountaintheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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