Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer has done a marvelous job of blending weighty ideas into a very human context.
Informed Consent by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Staged by Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street, New York, New York, through September 13.
By Paul Dervis
One of the most difficult tasks for a contemporary dramatist is to write a play that skillfully conveys complex intellectual ideas to audiences who aren’t very familiar with the material. In addition, there is the task of winning over theatergoers who are increasingly resistant to having to engage their minds too deeply. To be successful, this kind of a heady script is called on to work on a number of levels; it must be entertaining, suspenseful, and passionate while it delves into challenging concepts. Equis comes to mind as a model in which dense psychological conflicts were transformed into explosive drama.
You can add Informed Consent to the list.
Deborah Zoe Laufer, whose past plays include Leveling Up and Sirens, takes on the primal directives of the academic world, where researchers have no choice but to follow the mantra ‘publish or perish.’ She adds a very human twist to the Darwinian struggle.
The set, which initially strikes the eye as cold and antiseptic, consists of a twenty-five foot square wall of file boxes. They are drenched in a cobalt blue hue; a series of letters are projected on the squares. The letters make up the human DNA, our genetic make-up. The floor contains a chair and a desk and little else. The stage is surrounded by a semicircular bench that stores the play’s props and ultimately its narrative structure. Stage left and stage right host four spiral staircases, from which the cast of four will continually descend upon our protagonist, Dr Jillian Elliott, a professor at a prestigious Arizona research university.
Jillian is racing the clock.
Her mother died in her mid-thirties from early onset Alzheimer’s disease and Jillian, now the age of her mom when she died, carries the same gene. Against her judgement, she had a child, Natalie, whom she fears will also meet the same tragic end.
A colleague, Ken, has been working for decades with a Native American tribe which for centuries has been cloistered at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The group is valuable because its gene pool has not been touched by outside contaminants. Many members of the tribe suffer from cases of diabetes. Ken asks Jillian to join his research team to try to find a cause for their malady, and she jumps at it. But her agenda is not to investigate the cause of the diabetes, it is to find connections that will help in the fight against her own potential illness.
This is not what the natives, who are loyal to their tribal beliefs, signed up for. The vicious clashes among academic egos feels very real in this piece…and the inoculated tribe members become pawns in the cut-and-slash intellectual maneuvering.
The playwright has done a marvelous job of blending weighty ideas a very human context. Jillian is married to Graham, a dark-skinned young man who writes children’s stories and seems content to be a stay-at-home dad. Jillian is as outwardly cold as Graham is warm. Their relationship is complicated, but in the course of the play he gently pushes her into looking for ways to express her humanity.
As for the production, the entire cast, under the taut direction of Obie award-winning Leisl Tommy, is poetry in motion.
Jillian is played by Tina Benko with unabashed bravado; she swings seamlessly from abstract thinker with-a-chip-on-her-shoulder to an impassioned crusader fighting a losing battle with time. This is a take-charge female character who looks the audience in the eye and challenges us to question her perspective. In the opening scene, for example, she picks us off like a cerebral sniper, dismissing our stereotypical notions of individuality by informing us that we are 99% exactly the same. It’s that one percent difference that dooms her, her mother, and most likely her child. Benko makes that bleak realty palpable.
And the other cast members make the same visceral theatrical connections. Each of the four supporting actors play a major role, but along the way they also create a number of stylized subsidiary characters: children at a bookstore, parents at a playgroup, members of the Native American Tribe. These scenes, at first a bit jarring, lend a welcome fairy tale feel to what at times could be a chilly and analytical play. The irony is that the playfulness reinforces Informed Consent‘s vision of reality.
Although all the actors are strong, a special mention should go to Pun Bandhu’s Graham. In a harsh world of research gamesmanship, the character is determined to bring some organic gentleness into Jillian’s life. His passion for her softens the hardcore academic; his belief in the ‘now’ encourages Jillian to accept that it is essential to take a breath. Without sentimentality, Bandhu shows how Graham’s distinctive brand of spirituality cuts through the abusive clinical mindset.
Primary Stages and the playwright have made a commitment to having a ‘talk-back’ with the audience after the performance on Thursday nights. This is an unusual gift from a theater that is vitally important to the New York scene. Laufer gives background to the development of the piece and fields a wide range of questions, and she does it with same thought-provoking insight that the play itself possesses. It makes going to the theatre on a weeknight a special treat.
Staying in that academic niche, Quick Silver Theater Company, in a co-production with Classics in Color, is staging a multi-ethnic revival of David Auburn’s 2000 Pulitzer prize-winning play Proof at the 4th Street Theatre (through September 13). The newly minted troupe’s mission is to “broaden the diversity of the theatergoing audience.” If this production is an indication of what is to come, the company is off to a smashing start.
Proof revolves around the clashing daughters of Robert, a renowned mathematician who has recently died. The man had been suffering for years from debilitating mental issues: his best work had been done decades before his death. His live-in daughter, Catherine, seems to have inherited not only his psychological problems…but also his genius. She claims to have worked out a high-level mathematical problem — the solution is ground-breaking. But where’s the proof?
This production has a strong ensemble cast, lead by Lolita Foster (Orange is the New Black) as Catherine, and co-producer Nafeesa Monroe as the sister. Don’t pass up this chance to watch an interesting group lift off the ground and start to fly.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.