Max is a handful. The young boy with severe autism at the center of the new musical Max Understood hollers lines from The Wizard of Oz and his favorite TV commercials over and over until his parents respond with the next lines. He panics at loud noises or even something as simple as his folks turning the television off. He takes the familiar child’s gambit of repeating the question “why” to extremes.
His parents are at the ends of their ropes.
The world premiere of Max Understood at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater is a timely one because April isn’t just “the cruellest month” as T.S. Eliot had it; it’s also World Autism Awareness Month. A coproduction of the Paul Dresher Ensemble with Fort Mason Center Presents and Behavioral Intervention for Autism, the musical was written by Nancy Carlin, a longtime Bay Area actor and director, in her playwriting debut. The composer is Michael Rasbury, the resident sound designer for the off-Broadway theater company Transport Group, whose experiences raising his own autistic son inspired the musical.
While Max’s harried parents squabble over the logistics of taking care of him, the boy himself wanders out of the apartment and gets lost in the world outside, where his hyperactive imagination turns inquisitive neighbors into dreamlike creatures of fantasy. The kindly and somewhat childlike man with a leafblower (a charmingly eccentric Jackson Davis) ushers Max into a psychedelic wonderland. A nerdy kid (Jeremy Kahn), who’s nearly as hyperactive and socially awkward as Max himself, launches into a wonderfully silly rap about the presidents of Mount Rushmore. (Max is really into memorizing facts about presidents.) The older girl mocked for being overweight (Hayley Lovgren) just might secretly be a Pegasus, while the taunting mean girl (Alyssa Rhoney) becomes a sweetly soothing mermaid–or possibly a siren.
It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s imaginary in director David Schweizer’s surreal staging. Alexander V. Nichols’ set is a single, steeply sloping platform that rotates; when combined with Micah J. Stieglitz’s projections, it becomes an ever-shifting world. Everyone’s goofily distorted inside or outside of Max’s dreamworld, including Max’s nerve-racked Mom (Elise Youssef) and self-protectively zoned-out Dad (Teddy Spencer). Searching desperately for Max, the parents seem to be traveling through their own menacing mental funhouses.
In the end the most grounding presence is Max himself, marvelously portrayed by Oakland fifth grader Jonah Broscow. Intensely staring into space, his arm shaking involuntarily, Broscow’s Max is utterly compelling and convincing, whether he’s rattling his parents with his constant demands or dazed and confused by the outside world’s disruption of his routine.