Review: ‘Uncommon Sense’ Looks at Life on the Autism Spectrum

Review: ‘Uncommon Sense’ Looks at Life on the Autism Spectrum

Not that people with autism have been utterly absent from the stage. But too often they have been, like the young horse-mutilator in “Equus,” freaks and villains. More recently, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” featured a hero on the spectrum — a role now being played, in a regional production, by Mickey Rowe, an actor with autism. And in “Uncommon Sense,” Andrew Duff, the actor who plays Moose, has a diagnosis of autism too.

Still, it can be difficult to find ways to tell the stories of nonverbal characters like Moose and Lali authentically, when even their parents don’t know what those stories are.


Jessica Almasy, left, and Jill Frutkin. Written by Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris, the play illustrates just how broad and multicolored the autism spectrum is.

Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Mr. Paris and Ms. Paris-Carter, a couple with a family member on the spectrum, get around that problem by packing as much variety into their narrative as a 100-minute show will allow. As members of Tectonic Theater Project, they are expert mosaicists, comfortable with the process of research and montage that produced earlier Tectonic docu-plays like “The Laramie Project.” Though fiction, “Uncommon Sense” was developed over several years of investigation with “autism families” in Northern Iowa and elsewhere.

The result can sometimes feel too programmatic. Putting across so many medical factoids and bits of real stories has the paradoxical effect of diminishing a sense of emotional truth. You can almost count the items on a worthy checklist being addressed, one by one, in the intercut vignettes: safety, sexuality, employability, the push-pull of independence. But with their exceptional and sometimes opaque traits, Moose and Lali and Dan and Jess, who are composites, never cohere as characters.

Or perhaps that’s just the perspective of a neurotypical observer — a perspective that the play implicitly asks us to question. When the sound of silverware being sorted makes Lali miserable, “Uncommon Sense” helps us understand her discomfort by having us hear an avalanche of grating metal. (The sound design is by Stephanie Robinson.) When Jess reacts painfully to the fluorescent lighting “vibration” that a classmate doesn’t even notice, she seriously asks him, “What’s wrong with you?” One person’s disability is another’s exceptional awareness.

Even so, I suspect that most audience members who don’t live with autism will have an easier time connecting to the stories of the parents, whose highest hopes for their children begin where the depths of other parents’ despair might end. Lali’s mother, afraid that she will never be more than “a thing” to her daughter, dreams of a day when the girl might somehow be able to say, as other children do, whatever is on her mind. Spoiler alert: Be careful what you wish for.

And Moose’s parents must in the course of the play contend with the likelihood that their son’s abilities may never improve. What kind of life will he have, and how much of their own lives can they sacrifice to provide it? By serving, in effect, as his brain in the world, are they preventing him from achieving whatever growth is possible? Would he be happier in an institution? What would “happier” mean?

In the context of these racking questions, many of the play’s comic devices, no doubt intended to balance the pathos, seem labored. (Dan, on a first date, licks a young woman’s feet as a cat might.) Strangely for a work about difference, the shape of the storytelling tends toward the conventional. Yet when uncomfortable scenes are allowed to develop naturally — such as those in which Jess tries to manage a flirtation with the classmate she’s tutoring — real comedy, mixed with sadness, emerges.

If “Uncommon Sense” had less of an overview in mind, it might have focused more profitably on this or any one of its other stories. As it is, under Mr. Paris’s sometimes inventive but sometimes awkward direction, on a cramped multi-platform set by John Coyne, there is too much information pressing in from all sides. Neither the eye nor the mind is comfortable anywhere.

Which, on second thought, might be the most powerfully mimetic gesture in a play overfull of them.

Correction: November 6, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the character in “Uncommon Sense” who is discomforted by the sound of silverware being sorted. She is Lali, not Moose.

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