Gray Matters

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 office of chiropractor Matthew Cohen, whose life takes several turns when a new patient, a political lobbyist, starts coming in 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 examining 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-powered politico whose bravado and sexual forthrightness make Matthew uncomfortable. The play, the first of four Florida premieres that make up Florida Stage's winter season, is told in flashbacks from Sharon's point of view long after the events portrayed have actually taken place.

What drives Sharon's 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, on the one hand, 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 own financial troubles.

As you've probably guessed by now, Matthew and Sharon are people who would 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: Sharon and Michael's love affair is not convincing, and thus the idea that they leave indelible marks on each other 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 diminished. 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, and 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 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's, 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.

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