A real coup de théâtre
(Primary Stages, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Alfred P. Sloane Foundation)
At the Duke on 42nd Street til September 13
When a playwright can keep several balls in the air at once without dropping any or diluting their content or emotional power, you know they’re good. And Deborah Zoe Laufer is very, very good! Informed Consent offers dynamic testimony to her gifts for combining the mysteries of DNA, the cruelties imposed on Native Americans, the tension between science and cultural myth, and the searing bonds between lovers, parents, and children. What makes it all hang together is Laufer’s mastery of language and her instincts for storytelling.
As with many plays, there are “true events” that inspired the playwright’s imagination: a case that pitted the work of scientists at Arizona State University against the Havasupai people who had lived in the Grand Canyon for centuries (perhaps millennia). They considered their blood sacred but consented to have it analyzed for clues to the diabetes which had decimated the tribe. Without revealing that it would also be used for many other purposes, the scientists went well beyond their original mandate; when the tribe found out, they sued (and won) for unlawful use of their DNA.
Laufer uses this to launch a human drama on many levels that also revolves around DNA, but with an intensely personal focus: the lead scientist carries a gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s likely to be inherited by her daughter. Should she tell her? In a series of wrenching confrontations, she illuminates the ethics of science and the universal need for belonging, and the pain of making choices that will change lives and destinies. Yet such are the gifts of Informed Consent that its spacious ideas are always matched by its emotional impact.
The production gives the play everything it richly deserves: a compact cast of five (three of whom play multiple roles that are miracles of characterization); Tina Benko as a genetic anthropologist who grows in stature before your eyes, and DeLanna Studi as a Native American who tries to bridge the abyss between the history of her people and those who would obscure it. Every scene has complex emotional layers that keep you absorbed and thinking as their balance keeps shifting. There is some searing wit, and there is no dumbing down!
There is a final set of miracles here: the brilliant direction of Liesl Tommy that serves the playwright and the cast at every turn, and Wilson Chin’s set, with stairways like double helixes and walls of boxes used for projections of DNA sequences and, at the end, to reveal essential details of the plot. However complex, everything about Informed Consent is always lucid and full of feeling, yet takes only 95 minutes to speed by. Still, it haunts long after it’s over. Thank Primary Stages, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Alfed P. Sloane Foundation, and see the play. If you’re lucky, you can catch one of the lively post-theatre talkbacks. tickets