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The funny side of not fitting in

  • OddManOut4
Few people laugh about autism or people with Aspergers Syndrome, but a new hit play, Odd Man Out, explores the funny side of being different.
by JULIE LEIBOWITZ | Oct 11, 2018

“What is normal?” asks Daniel Janks, who plays an autistic man, Ryan, in the hit play at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton. “Ultimately, the play posits that we are all somewhere on the spectrum.”

Written by well-known Australian playwright David Williamson, Odd Man Out, which premiered in South Africa on 3 October, describes itself as a “comedy and unconventional love story”. It is highly unusual in that the main character is autistic.

But, the joy of the play is that the pathos of being different is not spelled out, it is conveyed subtly and hilariously through the love story of the two main characters, Alice and Ryan, and the machinations they go through in coming to terms with their neurological differences.

Alice and Ryan meet on a bus, and are quickly drawn to each other. They have little in common, except for a shared desperation to become a couple. However, it turns out that Ryan has Aspergers Syndrome, and is completely socially inept, and Alice struggles to “rehabilitate” him.

Alice has a foreboding that Ryan is different when he asks her out by messaging her a list of his favourite dinner venues – along with their ratings on TripAdvisor – with one clear favourite heavily underlined. Eventually, he asks her to marry him by saying, “If having children is a condition of our getting married, then I’m willing…”

American autism advocacy organisation Autism Speaks describes people with Aspergers – or “Aspies” as the play describes them – as having “strong language skills and intellectual ability”. However, they also tend to demonstrate “difficulty with social interactions; difficulty with nonverbal conversation skills; unco-ordinated movements or clumsiness; restricted interests; and a desire for sameness,” among other things.

Janks is brilliant as Ryan, right down to his nervous ticks and clumsy body movements, and we feel his pain and confusion at not being able to fit in or say the right thing.

Alice’s “normality” is a perfect foil for Ryan’s strangeness. Actress Ashleigh Harvey convincingly plays a neurotypical, and rather naïve physiotherapist, who finds herself unable to rescue this “odd” but brilliant man.

“These days, we don’t talk about Aspergers, it’s seen as high-functioning autism,” Janks says. He should know, having researched the subject in preparation for the role, including talking to psychologists and those with the disorder.

“Ryan has an honest approach to life. Alice is trying to figure out why he can’t do the social dances. He asks, ‘Why would I? Why can’t we be honest in the most brutal way?’. There are times when Ryan appears the normal one.

“I relate to him. A lot of things that make no sense to him make no sense to me. I’ve never been normal – I am dyslexic, Jewish, an actor, and so on. I understand what it’s like not to be normal. I’m also not great socially. And I’m brutally honest. I call things as they are. It annoys people – and I’m fine with that.”

But, writing about a neurological disorder, autism, from the perspective of the “neurotypical” world – and making it funny – is part of a greater message, which is the question: what is normal? How do we cohabit and negotiate togetherness?

“Ultimately, the play is about figuring out how to navigate a complicated relationship. Although it uses autism spectrum disorder, it shows the madness in all relationships – how we manage to negotiate different levels of social ability and comfort with intimacy.”

Adapted to a South African context – the play is set in Cape Town – its message is also particularly relevant to us, Janks says, because in South Africa, we have to deal with difference and how to manage other ways of being.

“We have a great deal of diversity – and we also have high levels of fear, hatred, even disgust of the other,” he says.

Judaism isn’t integral to the story in theme or character, but two out of four of the play’s actors – Janks and Russel Savadier – who plays Gary and Evan – are, in fact, Jewish.

Perhaps it does have some relevance, because Jews tend to be thinkers and innovators, and innovation sits outside of “normal” thought processes. “Many of the great thinkers of the age, if tested, would be found to be on the autism spectrum,” Janks says. “Perhaps our culture skews us towards the spectrum.”

Odd Man Out is very funny, but is autism a funny subject? “Autism can be very funny. Everything is funny,” Janks says. “[Playwright] David Williamson is using comedy to communicate messages. Comedy is a wonderful vehicle to prompt us to ask questions.

“At its heart, theatre should be entertaining. We are a little too obsessed with the message – which partly comes from our history of struggle theatre. Perhaps we have forgotten that theatre can be many things.

“It must be terrible to live with autism,” Janks points out. “It’s a huge challenge to be part of the neurotypical world. But it doesn’t make it less of a subject of humour.

“I have a responsibility to portray Ryan realistically. If psychologists and people who are on the spectrum come to see the play, I hope to do them justice, and show the challenges they deal with in the comedy.

“It’s a great play – fun, beautifully directed, well-acted, and talks to things we can relate to. Don’t come for a message, but hopefully leave with one.”

  • Odd Man Out is at Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 21 October. To book, call 011 883 8606 (Theatre Box Office) or 0861 915 8000 (Computicket). For more information, email [email protected]

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