DISABILITY: A COMEDY by Ron Whyte; directed by Richard Russell Ramos; setting by Karl Eigsti; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by William Mintzer; with Charles Janasz, Leslie Cass, William Andrews and Christina Moore.
At Arena Stage (in repertory) through May 2.
"Sexy paralyzed young man, age 27, who wished to meet sexy rich girl, 21 to 25. Object: running away and living happily ever after."
This classified ad launches the ingenious and maniacal plot of "Disability: A Comedy," which has in turn launched Arena Stage's ambitious repertory of new plays. Even with its reassuring appendage "a comedy," the title of Ron Whyte's play could discourage those who haven't been agitating for another chapter in the recent multimedia love affair with illness and physical abnormality.
But rest assured. It would be foolish to prejudge this play -- or postjudge it, for that matter -- in any of the obvious contexts. If "Disability" can be compared at all, it would be to the acid absurdity of "Oh Dad Poor Dad Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" or to the now-you-believe-it-now-you-don't suspense of "Sleuth," not at all to the tepid humanism of "The Shadow Box" and "Butterflies Are Free" and all the other attempts to humanize the relations between the well and the sick or the disabled and the nondisabled.
Those relations are, in fact, the central subject matter of "Disability." But instead of looking at the disabled through the eyes of the nondisabled, Whyte has turned the spyglass the other way around. And instead of humanizing something abstract, he has abstracted something human. He has taken what might be a real situation -- an angry, helpless quadriplegic living with his parents -- and twisted it into a bitter comic counteroffensive against the nondisabled and the malice, benign neglect and misbegotten love with which they treat the disabled.
This is not a heartwarming play, not a "celebration of life with all its adversities." The author doesn't always, by any means, give the grace and coherence of art to the harsh jumble of his feelings and ideas. Sometimes his wit becomes merely ugly or cliched. The mother and father, for example, are introduced as unpleasant stereotypes -- a dimwitted cabdriver who refers to the Mona Lisa as the "Mona something," and a dizzy, overbearing housewife who tells her helpless son to "be a good boy while I'm gone." ("I'm here alone," he replies. "I don't have much of a choice.") And for all the reversals in which Whyte involves the parents later in the story, they never really break free of those stereotypes.
Larry, the wheelchair-bound hero, isn't much more appealing as he whiles away the hours reading Nietzsche, listening to Vivaldi and firing off mean-spirited plots and cutting remarks. But Whyte lays out a relationship here that is somehow original and intriguing even when the parties to it aren't. "Disability" deals with a family in which the child is a complete dictator over his parents, and yet the parents are complete dictators over the child -- and there is no other form of intercourse between them.
Charles Janasz has a large assignment as Larry, and he gives the virtuoso performance the role demands, full of wit, cruelty and constant motion. As the parents, William Andrews and Leslie Cass are frighteningly one-dimensional, but one dimension is all the play really gives them except for a few unexpected touches -- too few -- near the end.
The last member of the cast is Christina Moore,giving a sensationally effective performance as the woman who answers Larry's ad and delivers some of the script's least expected punches. Moore and Janasz work particularly well off each other -- in fact, they play doesn't really come alive until Moore's entrance, a shrewdly written and staged moment unto itself. Later, Moore and Janasz do a kind of courtship dance in tandem wheelchairs (accompanied by Vivaldi) that is thoroughly mesmerizing.
Karl Eigsti's scenery lives up to Arena's usual high standards -- standards he has helped establish as the designer of 30 Arena shows. And director Richard Russell Ramos, despite a few awkward passages, has brought the playwright's vision to memorable and corrosive life.