Popular portrayals of autism tend to focus on very young children, usually boys, of impish features and intense, focused eyes suggesting a depth of understanding unknowable to the rest of us. Falling, currently playing at Off Broadway's Minetta Lane Theater, presents a grittier and more extreme case of the disorder and the effect it has on a family. Joshua (Daniel Everidge), a severely autistic 18-year-old, is precocious only in that he looks like a much older man. While he speaks and behaves like a toddler, he's balding, overweight, and physically powerful one minute, he's playing with plastic trains; the next, he has his mother in a headlock. As Joshua goes from autistic boy to autistic adult, his beleaguered family finds him not only harder to control, but though they hate to admit it harder to love. His mother, Tami (Julia Murney), is barely keeping it together as her son's primary advocate he's outgrowing his current forms of care yet she fears the effect of sending him away. Joshua's dad, Bill (Daniel Pearce), loves his son but is ready to focus on his marriage and raising the couple's other teenage child, Lisa (Jacey Powers), who's seething in her brother's shadow.
Tami and Bill have turned their home into a delicate ecosystem of code words and precautions designed to keep Joshua calm. (''Peanut butter'' means Josh is upset, everybody stay away; ''jelly'' means all clear). But when the kids' grandmother, Grammy Sue (Celia Howard), arrives for a visit, she upsets the balance she means well, but she's woefully ignorant about the severity of the situation and believes she can cure Josh's autism with prayer. Her visit also forces Tami to see her family's dysfunction from an outsider's perspective: The family is far from okay. Tami and Bill's marriage is suffering, Lisa is becoming bitter with neglect, and Joshua's violent rages are endangering the entire family.
Playwright Deanna Jent, herself the mother of an autistic teenage son, writes Tami's character with particular sensitivity we understand how much easier her life might be if she sent Joshua away, but also why she considers that an impossible option. Murney, who's best known for singing roles in shows like Wicked, more than rises to the occasion of playing the frayed-nerved Tami, and Everidge (Fat Camp) disappears into his role as Joshua, making the character in turn repellent and lovable. Jent stumbles when she plays up the religious zealotry of Grammy Sue with little nuance, and a bizarre plot twist toward the end of the 75-minute play nearly derails the whole drama. But at its best, Falling captures small moments of authenticity when Tami asks Joshua for a hug, he ignores her before approaching her and letting her hug him for less than a second that reveal the precariousness of this family in crisis. B+
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)