Review by Kathleen Campion
Informed Consent, a new play from Deborah Zoe Laufer in a limited run at the Duke, is a powerful mix of big issues and personal ethics.
In Arcadia, when Stoppard wrangles with questions of evidence vs. truth, he throws thermodynamics and fractals at you and it’s easy enough to get lost in the mathematical weeds.
In Informed Consent, Laufer skips by the really obscure issues of genetic engineering and its aberrations. Instead, she drills down to moral principles and freights her characters with impressive emotional affect. She holds your heart, while she provokes your conscience.
In the first scene, Jillian sits at her desk, struggling to write a momentous letter to her young daughter, Natalie, who is only four. She has painful news to deliver. Each of the other main characters—her husband, her friends, her colleagues—do walk-ons offering better lines, softer versions, critical judgements. They know her well; they remember how she acts; they understand what drives her. They demand she retell her story to get the audience up to speed.
In a lecture hall at a university in Arizona. Jillian, a research scientist specializing in genetic diseases, shows us impressive strings of DNA to demonstrate that humans are 99.9 percent identical; that there is no such thing as race; that all differences are owing to migration patterns, nothing more; that we share one great, great, great-et-cetera grandmother; that we are all cousins. It is science class with a kumbaya overlay. Race is only referenced in air quotes and the mixed-race cast has a lot of fun with this.
Tina Benko (Jillian) is the stand out white woman, while the four other leads segue into other racial profiles (yes, air quotes) and genders. There are charming and entertaining small bits of business. There are some powerful speeches from Pun Bandhu (Graham), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Dean Hagan) and Delanna Studi (Arella). Add to that, collectively, they serve as a sort of Greek chorus of shared memory
To underscore just how similar we are Professor Jillian washes the back wall of the stage with her own genetic code, and then highlights and names an oddity in her string. Because she is an expert on genetic anomalies, she has read her future. Like her mother she will die young of early-onset Alzheimer’s. She knows her time to do breakthrough work will be brief. Her desperation paces the action. Worse, it also pushes her into iffy ethical territory.
She gets the chance to study an isolated social group in the Grand Canyon basin: native Americans whom diabetes is killing. As she struggles with her opposite number, another young woman with a daughter who is the tribe’s protector, they thrash out the profound question of the play: If we are all so much the same, what makes you, you? Your tribe? Your job? Is it the sequence of your personal genome?
Jillian is convinced that finding and fixing the occasional errors in that sequencing is an answer. She runs off the ethical rails and betrays the trust of the tribe, essentially depending on the ‘greater good’ rationale. She loses her chance for cutting edge work. She loses everything.
Julianna Moore, as linguistics professor Alice Howland in last year’s Still Alice, rehearsed Jillian’s loss of self in the same setting, the familiar surround of a lecture hall. Lecturing on the nature of informed consent, Jillian loses her battle with Alzheimer’s in front of us. The moment has been in the wings throughout. As the whispers have told us from the beginning, the answer to the question of what makes you—you is your memories, and hers have fled.
While suggesting larger notions, Wilson Chin’s set is all function and order. Four circular staircases flank the stage, proving to be remarkably flexible for exits and entrances while at the same time managing to suggest the iconic strings of DNA under discussion. The back wall is so imposing you don’t immediately see the building blocks are banker’s boxes: perhaps a “server” of sorts—perhaps an homage to Arthur Clark’s transcendent monolith—perhaps just a really great device
For all it’s heft, Informed Consent is salted with laugh-out-loud moments as well as raw emotional ones. You go away not only satisfied with the experience and also with a lot on your mind. It’s a short run, so try to see it.
Informed Consent – By Deborah Zoe Laufer; directed by Liesl Tommy
WITH: Tina Benko (Jillian), Delanna Studi (Arella. Natalie), Jesse J. Perez (Ken), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Dean Hagan), Pun Bandhu (Graham), Delanna Studi (Natalie)
Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, Costume Design by Jacob A. Climer, Lighting Design by Matthew Richards, Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord, Projection Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.
Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets: $70
Informed Consent is set to run through September 13th at the Duke 229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan.