Natalie is a bright, talented high-school senior. Robert is a 37-year-old autistic man struggling to learn how to live on his own. When Natalie takes a job as Robert’s “helper,” an unlikely romance develops, much to the horror of their community.
But don’t squirm. This is no after-school special about love and tolerance. Dawkins evokes the phony-baloney Hollywood version of autism only to dismiss it in favor of a more realistic, unsettled view of the relationship between “normal” and “differently abled.” While Natalie clearly believes she’s uncovered Robert’s “the beauty within,” it’s never clear she hasn’t simply fallen for the security of his autism-driven rule-bound sense of right and wrong. And when counterpointed by a subplot involving Natalie’s high-school counselor, Robert’s caseworker, and a ball gag, the off-kilter romance becomes an investigation into the relationship between love and abuse.
Dawkins seems driven by an urge common in young playwrights: a desire to shock by saying the unsayable. Here, he’s channeled that impulse into something thought-provoking and poetic. He’s aided by Cone’s stripped-down production, which maintains a poker face during even the most pointed of barbs. As Natalie, Madeline Long is a very appealing, natural presence, and she’s nicely balanced by Will Schutz’s sweet but nearly unreachable Robert. Occasionally, Dawkins’s vision is too cinematic for storefront theater; he uses quick cross-cuts and ultra-brief scenarios that become choppy when delayed by slow light cues. But with a work this promising, it’s easy to overlook these limitations.