First Nighter: Deborah Zoe Laufer's 'Informed Consent' Gets Awfully Cute About Troubled Genomes

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and director Liesl Tommy want to assure you that science can be fun. In pursuit of the noble aim they've gone way out of their way to demonstrate that conviction while putting together Laufer's Informed Consent. The property, at the Duke, is based on an actual incident involving the Grand Canyon-based Havasupai tribe and Arizona State University.

They venture so far out of their way--way, way, waaay out of their way--because they're obviously worried that Laufer's work, which is concerned with the human genome and at times resembles a lecture on the complex subject, will hit the audience as dry.

Protagonist Jillian (Tina Benko) sometimes illustrates her points through the use of charts projected (courtesy of projections designer Jeannette Ol-Suk Yew) on a high upstage wall constructed of covered white file boxes. Not incidentally, Wilson Chin's spare set contains two spiral staircases at each side of the stage. The cast members go up and down them regularly, but the staircases are really there to conjure thoughts of the double helix. (There are such things as double-helix staircases.) That's when Ol-Suk Yew isn't flashing an image of the double helix on the file-box wall.

The basic Informed Consent plot Laufer spins from the headlines has to do with genetic anthropologist Jillian first convincing her Arizona State University superiors to conduct a study of a specific deviant genome. Then she must win over a tribe inhabiting a particular Grand Canyon canyon for at least the last millennium. She has to convince them that her goal is locating a wayward genome that will account for the tribe's decimation due to an increasing presence of diabetes. If Jillian can correct the genome, their communal problem could be ended once and for all.

The hitch in Jillian's scheme is that the tribe relies on traditions handed down through generations. One of these holds that tribal blood is sacred and that allowing it to be collected is forbidden. Jillian's challenge is to convince the tribe's members, represented by the stern Arella (Delanna Studi, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), that donating blood to save the tribe supersedes abiding by their long-held beliefs.

After heatedly debating the pros and cons, Jillian, who has a daughter, convinces Arella, who has a four-year-old daughter, that giving blood is in the tribe's best interests. As part of her argument, Jillian confides that she has a gene guaranteeing she'll develop Alzheimer's Disease--and even possibly an early-onset case, as afflicted her deceased mother.

Jillian's limitless tactics for achieving her compulsive results eventually become a problem not only for her academic colleagues, author/professor Ken (Jesse J. Perez) and Dean Hagan (Myra Lucretia Taylor), but also for her husband Graham (Pun Bandhu). Ken and Dean Hagan have reluctantly okayed the study for what they think is strictly geared towards diabetes research. Graham is concerned about Jillian's possibly having daughter Natalie (Studi, doubling) tested for the Alzheimer's gene, a happenstance he adamantly opposes.

Informed Consent revolves around these prickly issues. Complicating them is Jillian's fudging--intentionally? unintentionally?--the study's purpose. The informed consent of the title refers to the tribe members' agreeing that their blood will be examined solely to determine the wayward genome. Jillian eventually denies that limit, insisting she'd made clear she had additional observations in mind.

She goes about vociferously dismissing accusations when (possible spoiler on the way) she uses the blood samples to learn the migratory path Arella's tribe took from the historically established African diaspora. Her advising the tribe of the discovery threatens its insistence on having been created in their canyon. They believe that the canyon has always been their undisputed ground, that origins elsewhere refute all the myths by which they live.

In other words, Jillian has betrayed their informed consent. It's a deeply serious situation. But do Laufer and Tommy want to frame it that way? Nope. Seemingly worried that audiences won't want to swallow something that's the equivalent of theatrical Castor Oil, they make cutesy-poo with the play from the outset. The actors either add to or interrupt each other with light-hearted, sometime faux-chipper choral-like remarks. They assemble and reassemble in coy groupings.

They impersonate characters in Jillian's private life. Attending a children's party with Natalie in order to compensate for the many children's parties she hasn't attended, Jillian conducts a too-much-information blab to mothers represented by Taylor and Perez camping it up. Perhaps worse, when Studi is Natalie, she has to affect baby talk. It's enough to get patrons sticking fingers down their throat.

Informed Consent remains alienatingly twee for so much of its 90 minutes that Laufer and Tommy risk burying their sincere delve into the ethics of scientific research. Towards the end, however, when Jillian has jeopardized her career, they drop the shenanigans--all enacted at full throttle by the committed ensemble--and do it straight. They really must if the play is to have any meaningful impact.

It's about then that they also compound Laufer's intentions by slightly shifting the focus from Jillian's careerist missteps to something closer to her personal needs. Only at this juncture does Jillian begin to understand that her obsession with genomic construction may preclude a larger consideration of what it is to be a human being.

Initially addressing patrons as if they're present at a speech she's giving, she reiterates--yes, cutely--that genomically "we're all cousins." Her progress towards realizing what truly relates us is a significant one. For the wrong reasons, Laufer and Tommy nearly undermine the basic subject matter.