James J. Christy’s new play “Love and Communication,” now having its world premiere at the Passage Theater in Trenton, may not have the cleverest or the most provocative title, but it is conceived and executed with a kind of wacky cleverness that comes close but doesn’t completely neutralize its otherwise provocative subject matter: autism. That Christy is drawing from his own family’s connection, knowledge, experience, and concern (based on interviews with the press) for a condition that affects an increasing number of children certainly brings an empathetic subtext and an informed frame of reference to his playfully serious play.
After a short opening scene in which we see Megan Holden (Julianna Zinkel) trying unsuccessfully to help her autistic 5-year-old child (unseen) respond to some basic skills, the play shifts to two different locales (split stage) where we listen to the directors of two different facilities speak on how they approach and deal with the needs of autistic children.
While Megan is an attendee in a school auditorium listening to the warm-hearted and enthusiastic Dr. Silverman (John Jezior) speak about his program called LAC (Learning Architect Consultants,) her husband, Rob (Chris Stack), has gone to a conference room in a high-end school for children with autism where he listens to its director, Julia (Lena Kaminsky), present the values of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis). To put this simply, LAC believes in the emotional approach and ABA is, as it is referred to, science-based.
This makes for an immediate and pressing conflict, as Rob is inclined to favor the science-based disciplines, especially as Julia, as he discovers, is a fellow graduate of his alma mater. Intuitively Megan prefers the application of Silverman’s emotional methods and begins an aggressive E-mail correspondence with him.
At first Rob and Megan’s biggest hurdle is convincing Regina (Ashley B. Spearman) the patient but typically by-the-rules-bound board of education case worker, that Sammy is a candidate for special education in another school. The public school’s evaluation/assessment of Sammy’s autism places him just below the normal, but not severe enough for them to green-light the transfer and expense.
Recognizing the uphill battle they face to provide the help they need, they remove Sammy from school while Megan gives up her job, attempts home-schooling, and Rob seeks help from a lawyer. The relationship between Rob and Megan is as strained as it is draining while they attempt to get beyond the maze of bureaucracy in the system, as well as with the issue of affordability.
Without legal authorization, the ABA school can cost $92,000 a year. Interestingly, Megan’s relationship with Silverman takes on a curious life of its own through the increasingly communicative E-mail in which he becomes moved to offer the boy a scholarship. But what about the extraordinary ways that Julia helps Rob triumph or is it to trump the obstacles in their path?
The play, under the direction of Adam Immerwahr, takes such a dramatic detour in Act II that the audience is taken by surprise. This could be a good thing if we were given a hint of what was in store. While Act I is close to being a polemic and suffers by being immersed with the perfunctory issues and concerns confronting Rob and Megan, Act II begins with a surprising and hilarious scene (I won’t be a spoiler).
This sets the stage for a series of increasingly convoluted contrivances. We are suddenly thrown into a genre/realm of reality best described as far-fetched. To be shaken from our complacency is one thing. But absurdities begin to pile up as one professional is suddenly revealed as not being who we think he is, another is not able to comply as a professional with the accepted rules of ethical behavior, and still another character shows up out-of-the-blue to make things more ridiculous. Such as they are, the rules of the game are also changed for both Rob and Megan, whose marriage has already been on shaky ground.
Although what actually happens doesn’t make much sense or add up, the performances are sturdy. Stack, amidst Rob’s general state of angst, has a winning moment doing a “crazy” dance for his son. Zinkel is credible as more than just a desperate housewife. Spearman delivers the perfect no nonsense aspect to her role as the case counselor, and Jezior is winning as the compassionate director.
It won’t be spoiling much to say that Tom Saporito brings an unexpected twist to the plot as a kooky LAC technician. Designer Jeff Van Velsor’s black box setting with its boxy black furnishings provides the frame for this bi-polar play about autism.
“Love and Communication,” through Sunday, October 24, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Trenton. $20-$30. 609-392-0766. www.passagetheatre.org.