Four characters experience life on the autism spectrum in Tectonic Theater Project's latest off-Broadway debut.
Tectonic Theater Project tries to make inscrutable minds a little less inscrutable with its work of theatrical empathy, Uncommon Sense, now making its New York premiere at the Sheen Center. Written by Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris (who also directs), the play follows four individuals who fall on various points of the autism spectrum, cracking open their rich inner lives for those of us in the audience whose sensory experiences are a little more…common — or at least are able to be expressed in common language ad infinitum.
Appropriately, nonverbal communication dominates the narrative: Projection designer David Bengali visually manifests the feeling a young woman gets from running her fingers through a pan of rice; sound designer Stephanie Robinson translates the sound of snoring into the overwhelming cacophony it beomes for a man living with Asperger's; and lighting designer Paul Miller provides a pervasive filter for everyday experiences that are suddenly filled to the brim with stimuli.
In its design, Uncommon Sense is enveloping and nudges open the windows into its characters' mental and emotional activity (John Coyne's compartmentalized set is akin to a series of picture windows that hold the play's separate vignettes). It's so effectively theatrical that you'd almost rather do away entirely with the heavy-handed text, which puts a lead weight on what could otherwise be a delicate piece of theater.
The authors do a deep dive into each of their four story lines, but the episodic style of the play produces isolated chapters of a docudrama rather than a fully integrated narrative. The acting is strong from top to bottom, but the characters often feel like paper-thin shells of the flesh-and-blood human beings they represent. We first meet a young man named Moose (Andrew Duff), who suffers from severe autism and has become a physical hazard to himself and his parents, a sleep- and romance-deprived pair played by Brian Hastert and Michi Barall subsisting on the hope that their son will someday utter the word "mama."
Next we have the nonverbal Lali (Jill Frutkin), whose mother (Purva Bedi) employs a speech therapist (Jessica Almasy) to somehow open the lines of communication between her and her daughter. Almasy then doubles as an introverted anime-obsessed college student named Jess (the richest character and performance of the production). Hastert reappears as a lacrosse jock named Alex who Jess finds herself tutoring in neuroscience (a rather on-the-nose excuse to explain the scientific principles behind autism).
Finally, there's Dan (Scott Barrow), a high-functioning man living with Asperger's who stumbles through a new romance with an adorakable woman named Sarah (Frutkin periodically transforms from the silent Lali into this chatty nerd for her sweet scenes with Barrow).
We're invested in the successes and failures of each of the characters who suffer with varying degrees of autism, and can viscerally feel the weight on the shoulders of their loved ones. But the further we travel through their stories, the more Uncommon Sense feels like an academic presentation on the expansive breadth of the autism spectrum. Each stop along the way is diluted with humor, but these brief respites feel more like incongruent attempts to lighten the mood, rather than authentic moments of levity that spring from less-than-ideal circumstances (a silent movie-style date for Dan and Sarah is one of the most tonally confusing scenes).
As the show depicts, misunderstandings about individuals on the spectrum can impede careers, stunt relationships, and delay communication to the endless frustration of everyone involved. Considering society's hazy grasp on all of this, perhaps the play's authors feel like it's due time to sit each and every one of us down to clarify a few things that could finally help us take a collective step forward. But in the theater, with endless modes of communication at your fingertips, words are the last things that should get in the way.