Bent Outof Shape | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Bent Outof Shape

When a play's title is The Adjustment, chances are the playwright will be suggesting a monumental shift in attitude or perspective on the part of one or more characters. In Michael T. Folie's new work, recently opened at the Florida Stage, tiny adjustments also occur. The play is set in and around the chiropractic office of Dr. Matthew Cohen, whose life takes several new turns when a new patient, a political lobbyist, starts to come for regular appointments. As for the patient, a woman named Sharon Gray, her life is also transformed in unexpected ways.

"Talk on the telephone a lot?" Matthew asks Sharon during her first visit, noticing her stiff neck as he adjusts her spine while she lies on his exam table. "I live on the telephone," Sharon replies, and thus begins the story of how these two people meet, fall in love, and try to reach across the vast gulf that separates them. Matthew is an unassuming orthodox Jew who happens to have Parkinson's disease. Sharon is a high-power politico, whose bravado and sexual forthrightness make Matthew uncomfortable. The play, the first of four Florida premieres that make up the Florida Stage winter season, is told in flashbacks from Sharon's point of view long after the events it portrays have actually taken place.

What drives Sharon and Matthew's attraction to each other, it seems, is their radical differences. Matthew was raised by nonreligious parents but converted to orthodoxy in order to join the congregation of a charismatic rabbi. Sharon is the daughter of a woman who, as a young teenager, got her family out of Nazi Germany by performing oral sex on German army officers. The world views of these two individuals clearly do not emanate from the same universe. Matthew regards Sharon as an amoral manipulator, willing to lie to get what she wants from people. Sharon, on the other hand, sees Michael as a naif, a man who won't listen to her tales of how his rabbi, the head of an influential sect in their unnamed metropolitan area, has used the local political machine to fix his financial troubles.

As you've probably guessed by now, Matthew and Sharon are people who would otherwise never have met without the help of a playwright. Folie's play, smartly and briskly directed by Gail Garrisan, fits into the performance space at Florida Stage like the neatly constructed puzzle that it is. By no coincidence designer Carlos Asse's movable sets -- which alternately depict Matthew's office and Sharon's various environments (including a hotel room, an office, and a living room) -- are built atop rollers so that during the scene changes the wall and floor pieces move toward each other, eventually fitting snugly together. This construction serves the play but doesn't illuminate its biggest problem -- the fact that Sharon and Michael's love affair is not convincing, and thus the idea that they leave indelible marks on one another is not compelling.

From the outset the friendship between the two is built on sparring and debate. When Sharon refuses to wear a gown while undergoing her weekly chiropractic adjustment, Michael insists he is not sexually attracted to her. Sharon confronts him in this lie. While Michael can accept small inconsistencies in himself, he refuses to examine the seeming hypocrisy of his spiritual leader. "The rabbi is the air I breathe, the sun on my face," he says. Even after the rabbi -- whose permission is needed to make a life decision -- refuses Matthew's request for an operation that would cure his Parkinson's disease, Matthew's faith is not deterred. Not even after Sharon digs up evidence that the rabbi allowed another sect member to have the procedure.

As her last name suggests, Sharon sees the world in shades of gray, but extremes perplex her. She barely possesses the emotional tools needed to digest the way Michael sees the world. "You are what you are," Michael says when Sharon points out that she has had to use deception to survive. "You think I am worse than a goy," she retorts. Their relationship sets up a debate on the nature of compromise versus sticking up for ideals. Or at least that's the direction in which the play seems to be heading, as actress Debra Whitfield maneuvers her character around the stage with the confidence of someone who could seemingly lead a small country into war and never lose concentration.

Facing this irresistible force is Mark Ulrich's Matthew, who is not entirely convincing as the would-be immovable object that the playwright has placed in Sharon's path. Ulrich, a deft actor, struggles under the weighty trappings of playing a disabled man who is less fully imagined than his on-stage counterpart. The role's ineffectiveness, however, is built into the play's design. The Adjustment is essentially a two-person play (John Fionte, a consummate utility player, portrays extraneous congressmen, friends of Sharon, and other small parts), in which the glut of power and perspective is placed on one character's shoulders. Not only is Sharon written with more depth and verisimilitude than Matthew, but she tells the story of the play, giving us her version of events.

That's one reason it's difficult to understand most of Matthew's motivations. When his medical practice wanes as a result of a deception by the man from whom he bought it, Matthew isn't above letting Sharon put her connections to work. Soon he's put on the city payroll, the better, it seems, for Sharon to use him for her own purposes. We never truly understand why this arrangement sits well with Matthew. (In addition, I couldn't figure out just how a chiropractor would fit on any city's payroll. He seems to get hired in Act One so that he can strategically reappear in Act Two.) But managing Matthew's fate is just one of Sharon's projects. She's also involved in a major lobbying deal that involves throwing a cable TV franchise to a group of minority businessmen in return for their votes on a development project in an impoverished neighborhood.

And if she didn't already have enough on her plate, Sharon also informs us that she would like to be a mother. "I don't want you to think I'm one of those women desperate to get married, but it is getting late in the day, and I wouldn't mind having a kid or two," she says. Indeed, by the time the end of the first act arrives, Sharon seems to have set so many subplots into play -- including regular monitoring of her ovulation -- it would surprise few to learn that she's made some sort of Mametesque deal with the devil in which the unsuspecting morons around her will eventually get screwed.

What transpires in the second act, however, comes as a surprise to anyone expecting a chessboardlike advancement of Sharon's various personal and political strategies. Without giving away details, it would be fair to say that there is an adjustment involving a leap of faith on Sharon's part. In my opinion, however, there's no satisfaction to be had in learning about these changes in Sharon's attitude and her life. The essential transition falls flat, in part, because Folie allows his characters to express their profound feelings for one another in a pair of short speeches rather than letting us see for ourselves that they have freed each other from their respective emotional "prisons," as they so tritely put it. To use the metaphor of the play, not enough smaller adjustments take place to prepare us for this big adjustment. As a result, I never believed the characters were in love, much less that Matthew was someone worthy of Sharon's admiration.

In order for the audience to make something akin to the same leap of faith that Sharon does, or at least to feel moved by Sharon's experience, we need to be able to empathize with Matthew's devotion to his beliefs. Director Garrisan (who is also artistic director of Miami's City Theatre) gets a marvelous performance out of Whitfield, who is the perfect embodiment of control even when she's half undressed, in her bra and skirt, at Matthew's chiropractic office. But the director hasn't found an authentic statement for Ulrich, whose Matthew never really emerges out from under his burden of symbolism. As a result it's never entirely clear whether Folie wants us to admire Matthew or to see him as woefully misguided. And because we can do neither, Matthew's faith -- and the adjustment he makes possible for Sharon -- is forever out of our reach.

The Adjustment.
Written by Michael T. Folie. Directed by Gail Garrisan. Starring Debra Whitfield, Mark Ulrich, and John Fionte. Through November 29. Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 800-514-3837.