May 19, 2024
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May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Brilliant: Empathy, Angst and ‘The Spectrum’

This musical is a five-year work in progress. Some shows are workshopped solely during rehearsal, but not so with “Brilliant,” staged at Theater Row in Manhattan. Before the lights dimmed, playwright/producer Dani Tapper let the audience know that she wanted their feedback and that her goal in writing “Brilliant” was to let people know that they are not alone. Clearly Tapper and director Misti Wills must have anticipated the show’s emotional impact, so much so that along with the playbill, ushers distributed packets of tissues that read Brilliant: The Musical.

Regardless of whether you consider “Brilliant” unfinished business or a fait accompli, it is a “must see.” It cuts to the core dilemma of parents who must balance advocating for a special-needs child, while dealing emotionally and viscerally with the impact of their child’s struggle. It recalibrates parents’ hopes and expectations for their children with the realities of their children’s limitations. Yet in this musical drama, despite the many palpable strains, short-term fractured child-parent relations and all-around angst, the bonds between child, sibling and parents, overall, hold fast.

“Brilliant” tracks the Brooks family—Boston-based upper middle-class parents Jake and Sarah and their children Adam and Kat. Implicitly, they could well be Jewish—don’t let the name Kat fool you)—or not. The story’s timeline extends from the Brooks’ joyful discovery that Sarah is pregnant, when Jake anticipates a son with whom he can play sports, and weaves through the children’s formative years, as Kat succeeds and Adam flounders.

In many ways, Adam is clearly “brilliant” and perceptive, but withdraws in school settings, and explodes in frustration. He falls between the cracks, and Jake and Sara face multiple disappointments as they contend with schools that are neither properly equipped nor eager to deal with Adam’s issues. His eruptions escalate. His anger, and particularly his “edge” with his mother, generates friction between Jake and Sarah, and threatens the family relationships among them all. This darker edge, and the songs that reflect this tension, intensify as the plot progresses. Sarah’s initial emotions, in the song “Pose,” when she clicks her camera phone repeatedly in the search for the perfect pose, belie the mounting troubles and imply that at least on Facebook, the Brooks family can be perfect.

Facebook can only mask the illusion of perfect families for so long, as Jake and Sarah see their options for Adam’s education and well-being narrow, and the gaps between their lives and those of their friends widen. Even a benign nail salon encounter with friends can have a dual edge. The pampered pleasure of Sarah’s pedicure is muted. That’s because Meaghan, her best friend, and Julie, another friend, kvetch and sing, “You can only be as happy as your least happiest child.” Despite their gripes, Meaghan and Julie still have their children’s sports triumphs to recount. Sarah sheepishly concedes that Adam has never picked up a ball.

Sarah and Jake bring Adam to a psychologist for assessment, after which Adam is diagnosed “on the spectrum.” Without a timeline, it’s hard to comprehend what took so long for Adam to get assessed, given his developmental delays and problems with socialization. Yet the Brooks’ major grievance is not the assessment process but their disastrous search for the right school, after which Sarah and Jake face a “gut-wrenching” decision. (Sorry, no spoiler—see the show!)

Audiences are fortunate that “Brilliant” exists, for at least two significant reasons. First, producers generally avoid scripts that present risks for investors. Stories about younger teens on the spectrum barely appear in mainstream productions. The protagonist in “Dear Evan Hansen” is already 17 at the outset. The troubled protagonist of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” the critically acclaimed book and play, is a mere 15. When, finally, HBO greenlighted “Temple Grandin,” it depicted the early childhood through young adult years of a severely autistic heroine, who ultimately triumphs, harnessing her visual lens, mother’s love and teacher’s support. Amazingly, though not a financial megahit, “The Curious Incident” turned a profit. “Temple Grandin” was a highly rated DVD release. They are rare commercial tales indeed. When Marvel superheroes and “Frozen”-like franchises can rake in the cash, who cares about an autistic teen’s saga?

The second reason that this play will resonate with audiences is that it touches on an Achilles heel for many families—the notion that our children must be the most perfect, and the most accomplished. Such children are assumed to be thoroughly worthy of the best possible marriage partners, in the end-game focus on Jewish family life. In some circles, there exists a lingering, perceptible NIMBY “vibe” that leads to denying children’s special needs. Parents may fear that having their child(ren) labeled “learning disabled” or “on the spectrum” and placed in special needs classes reflects poorly on themselves—and casts a pale on the entire family’s marriage prospects. Although, thankfully, there has been substantial growth in special education in the past two decades, perhaps this underlying concern has contributed to the Orthodox community’s history of trailing the secular world in training and implementation of special needs services.

Clearly, “Brilliant” has much to offer its audience, even those disassociated with the special needs community. It’s about love, compassion, acceptance and reconciliation, but not about redemption. Adam hasn’t done anything that calls for his redemption. He is what he is because it’s just the way he is wired. It takes a long time for Sarah and Jake to come to terms with that reality and the consequent steps they must take to improve life for them all.

In contrast with “Temple Grandin” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” “Brilliant” presents Sarah and Jake as two very loving parents who are vested in their son’s educational and emotional journey. Nevertheless, it’s unclear how much they really understand about Adam’s cognitive strengths and limitations, not just his frustrations. The script would benefit from a more palpable sense of Sarah’s agony and tensions, Adam’s fractured relationship with Kat, whom he trusts and whose company he adores, and a clearly identifiable peer group to which Adam is—or is not—welcome.

Tapper’s script and songs, capably staged by Misti Wills and abetted by the ensemble (special kudos to Kimberly Suskind [Sarah] and Courtney Dease [Jake]), musical trio and April Bartlett’s minimalist set, create a poignant portrait of a family in crisis. The potent message about children, set to music, is: “A million stars in the sky/Some shine brighter than the next/But if you look much closer/Each one is brilliant as the rest.”

Rachel Kovacs is an adjunct associate professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at
[email protected].

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