REVIEW: Charley’s Sonata (On the Spot and La Costa)

Cliché-ridden family drama never finds the beat.


On the Spot Theatre Company and La Costa Theatre present
Charley’s Sonata
Written and Directed by Mike Brayndick
Original music by Stephen Gawrit
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through May 23rd  |
  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

The writer-director is a dangerous animal. A writer’s primary task is to provide the foundation of the play, establishing style, creating plot and characters, and putting words in the actors’ mouths. Everything starts with the script. The director takes these elements and gives them life, coaching actors and working with a design team with the ultimate goal of enriching the source material. Manipulating these factors garners IMG_4600 an emotional reaction from the audience, and the director builds the connection that will determine the play’s success. It takes a massive amount of work and skill to do both well, but the main reason these roles are kept separate is because they create a system of checks and balances. The writer protects the integrity of the script, the director protects the integrity of the stage. When two become one, it can get ugly, and Charley’s Sonata ain’t pretty. The script lacks focus, struggling to balance multiple storylines about stereotypical characters, and the directorial choices are simply illogical, from unnecessarily long scene changes to the general overacting of the ensemble.

Charley (Stephen Gawrit) is the developmentally challenged son of Jonathan (David Schaplowsky) and Carol (Jennifer Young) who disappears on a family vacation in London. The events of the day Charley vanished are intertwined with various plots occurring four years later, when Jonathan and his daughter Miriam (Emma Brayndick) return to London for the reading of a relative’s will. Jonathan and Carol’s struggling marriage, Miriam’s romantic troubles, cousins Edwin (Daniel Ochoa) and Janice’s (Sandria-Jane Dajani) issues with Edwin’s mother Patricia (Janet Magnuson), and side stories involving who gets the inheritance and Patricia’s super-weird relationship with Charley are all covered, and the result is a jumbled mess that feels only half finished.

Charley’s Sonata has as much emotion as the title character’s tinny Casio. Relationships don’t feel organic, especially Miriam’s out-of-nowhere romance with a British boy and his subsequent infatuation with her; the stakes aren’t fully realized, one of the key factors that separates acting from line-reading. The cliché-ridden dialogue becomes a chore to get through – I’ve only been to London once, but I don’t think I ever heard anyone say “gov” – making the conflicts feel derivative and the production just plain boring. The show’s momentum is further diminished by the numerous lengthy scene changes, most of which are completely extraneous. At one point it takes almost an entire minute for one potted plant to be placed, which serves absolutely no purpose other than suggesting Edwin and Janice are redecorating, which is still pointless. It’s wasteful and inconsiderate to the audience, who pays to see characters interacting, not set pieces getting moved around.


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Granted, the character interactions also leave something to be desired. The actors struggle with the dialect, jump on each other’s lines, and occasionally even forget the name of the character they’re talking to. Schaplowsky and Dajani provide the most enjoyable performances, the former showing a genuine love for his family and fear for their future, and the latter giving some great comic relief with a spot-on dialect. Considering the amount of time spent focusing on it, Charley shows few signs of a developmental disorder other than the occasional breakdown of a contraction (“don’t” becomes “do not”, “won’t” becomes “will not”), and while Gawrit does a fine job performing Charley’s monologues, they are so eloquent that it becomes difficult to believe the character’s circumstances. Why doesn’t Charley just pick up a phone and call his parents? The whole plot hinges on Charley not being able to take care of himself, but he somehow finds a way to leave his parents a recording of his sonata while lost in a foreign country. It just doesn’t make any sense. Did he have a disc burner in his back pack? Why didn’t he send them an e-mail? These inconsistencies are what hurt the play the most, and while the cast is committed to their work, it’s hard to build a solid product on a faulty foundation.

Rating: ★½



One Response

  1. Unfortunately this review is based on a profound ignorance of the nature of Autism. Charley’s Sonata does NOT hinge on the idea that Charley cannot take care of himself. There are many people who struggle with the neuro-biological disorder called Autism and make great progress dealing with their condition and come to a point where they need, and have to try to lead independent lives the best they can. The term Autism covers a wide spectrum of difficulties with usually a core issue of impediments to reading social cues. Some with Autism are indeed highly articulate and some go on to lead highly functioning lives as the real life stories of people like the scientist Temple Grandin suggest. The play actually focuses on the mystery of what may or may not have happened to Charley given his determination to make the most of himself and be as open to the world as he can be. Stephen Gawrit’s nuanced performance as Charley is one of the strengths of this production as it shows him to be a unique and complex individual with great gifts as well as great challenges to meet. Charley’s Sonata is a strongly-acted ensemble piece in which each actor makes the most of what they have to offer as a performer and as an interpreter of the emotions, ideas, and themes of this play. Far from being ugly, there is something quite lovely about seeing a group of artists work so well together. It is true that the play combines comedy and drama, but then so does life. The abusrdities of the human condition often overlap with moments in which the best or the worst might happen to us at the same time. The point of the play is that Charley deals with his life with great dignity and learns to express his love for the world and the people closest to him despite the terrors and dispairs that life sometimes subjects us to. As for the idea that a writer should not direct, this also flies in the face of a history of accomplished writer/directors not only in drama but also in film. To make a judgement based on a narrowing of categories, whether on the nature of Autism, or the creative process, is to demonstrate all the more the essential importance of art and theater in confronting stereotypes, lack of understanding, and true knowledge of what it is to be a human being. The people involved in Charley’s Sonata, all of them, should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished. On a minor note, in a modern city like London, there are internet cafes everywhere where one could easily make a copy of a CD. Given that April was Autism Awareness month, I hope that people come to see this play and judge for themselves the choices made by each of the characters in this well-written, well-acted, and thoughtfully staged story.

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