Charley Kringas is autistic.
It is time to stop lying to ourselves. As Sondheim fans and George Furth knowledge-havers, we need to just come out and admit it. You need to accept the simple truth. Charley Kringas is autistic.
I could start with a long justification, about how obviously this is a particular reading of a character and even more obviously not intentionally done, but everyone in this theoretical room deserves better. You’re all smart enough to hear me out. You get the deal, let me explain.
There is textual evidence for the idea, I’d argue. From Charley’s stated dedication to routine (I have one unique virtue, I am consistent. I am still married to Evelyn. I still write for the theatre. I still live in New York.) to Charley’s consistently missed social cues, especially with Joe and Gussie. He answers rhetorical questions literally and in the revised version, spends the interview scene answering questions he wasn’t asked. He makes jokes at incorrect times.
He’s great with Frank Jr, in the revision, and Mary and Frank both seem to find it eye roll worthy. He is endlessly passionate, described as stubborn, and goes from 0–100 in a brief moment.
The biggest example of this would be the interview scene. With little effort, this scene can be interpreted as a meltdown. Charley is pushed into an uncertain and new situation and environment, with new and unspoken social conventions, and then combined with intense emotional distress, he breaks down. It’s almost too easy.
Oh, yeah, and he writes one play for twenty years, folks.
Of course, that’s not all of it. Theatre is not just the text. Consider how actors often give Charley “nervous habits.” Most would chalk this up to the character’s neuroticism, but is Charley even that neurotic? He has a breakdown on live television, sure, but beyond that? Frank describes him as stubborn in the revised version of the show, maybe.
Charley is easily frustrated, a spiky personality, but he’s also easily manipulated. He’s strung along by Frank, not just towards the end of their friendship, but even early on. Charley’s lack of self confidence, demonstrated in the scene on the roof (Are you mad at me?) follows him through the years. Charley struggles with the social conventions go beyond limiting his ability to make small talk, they define his arc. Charley is dominated by the more socially adept Mary and Frank, and has little demonstrated control over his career.
The typical autistic tragedy is there, but Merrily comes through. Though Charley is left alone, he is shown to be right. Charley is the character who doesn’t turn out the same. Charley may be odd, or confusing, or too strong willed, but in the end, he’s still right, and he’s the only character who doesn’t fall into the pits of capitalistic hell.
That is what makes Charley’s autistic energies so fantastic. While Charley is still allowed to be a funny, silly character like the others in the show, he is also still smart, and loving, and ultimately allowed to be the person who “wins” because of his passion and inability to conform.
A production that considers this idea in casting, directing, and performance, would allow for the character dynamics within the show to have more depth. While we should not depend on interpretations of shows from 40 years ago for any level of true representation, Merrily acts as a good vessel to demonstrate a positive and unique look on autism in the arts.
Merrily as a show once had much stronger political tones, and the revisions throughout its development shaped it into a more lukewarm, open ended, low-key show, aching for something unique to make the dynamics demonstrated mean more.
Besides, isn’t it something we were all waiting to admit to ourselves?
Well, it should be!