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Theatre in Review: Informed Consent (Primary Stages/Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Tina Benko, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jesse J. Perez. Photo: James Leynse.

There's nothing more painful than seeing a playwright tackle tough, thorny issues without the skill to bring their complexities to dramatic life. That's that sad case with Informed Consent, which, in 95 minutes, tries to combine a cogent discussion of ethics in academic research with a report on the fallen state of Native Americans and a meditation on scientific fact versus articles of faith -- and pretty much fumbles all three. The excellent Tina Benko stars as Jillian, a genetic anthropologist whose work has a deeply personal component: She carries the gene for early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which killed her mother while still quite young. Early on, Jillian states, clearly and for the record, the bad news: Her chances of becoming similarly afflicted are 100%.

While she is alive and well, however, Jillian is a dynamo, the kind of true believer in the miracles of science who, attending a children's birthday party, gets all the mothers to sign up for genetic screening. An ongoing source of tension in Jillian's marriage to Graham, a gentle author of children's books, is her desire to test their daughter, who is four, for the Alzheimer's gene. Jillian insists that knowledge is power; Graham contends that this particular knowledge will do nothing but poison their lives.

These concerns are temporarily put aside when Jillian gets an exciting new project: Ken, a colleague and a social anthropologist, puts her on the case of a Native American tribe, living in the Grand Canyon, whose members suffer from an alarmingly high rate of diabetes. Jillian's first instinct is to order up blood work, to see if she can identify an errant gene; this can't be done, however, since her subjects believe their blood is sacred and not to be surrendered. Jillian's Plan B is to undertake a study of their past migrations: This is a no-go, too, since, according to their mythology, they have never lived anywhere but the Grand Canyon. Aided by Arella, a tribal representative, Jillian, who is never afraid of stepping on a few toes, gets them to surrender their blood samples. She does so by way of a notably vague informed consent agreement, which, she feels, pretty much gives her carte blanche to undertake any study she chooses.

This plan provides a fast trip to disaster; the blood work fails to deliver an errant gene, and Jillian's attempts at initiating additional tests are blocked by furious members of the tribe, who feel hoodwinked and betrayed. Before long, there's a lawsuit in the offing and Jillian is facing disciplinary measures from the dean of her university. At the same time, her marriage is unraveling over the issue of testing her daughter. Jillian announces that she is having it done against Graham's objections, but will spare him the outcome; as a result, he is eaten up with anxiety - equally desperate to know and to be kept in the dark.

This is a lot for any playwright to handle, and, frankly, Laufer isn't too particular about how she keeps the pot boiling, resulting in all sorts of implausibilities. Why does Ken assign this project to Jillian, whose work is all about medical testing, then inform her that she can't do anything of the kind? Does Ken provide no supervision to Jillian? When the journals that are set to publish Jillian's findings cancel her articles, why don't they inform her? (She gets the information secondhand, from her dean.)

And in a play filled with arguments that cry out for nuance, the characters stake their positions early, never budging an inch and leaving little room for drama. When the tribal blood test fails to provide conclusive results, Arella lashes out, sounding like an angry 16-year-old because Jillian hasn't produced an instant miracle cure. Then again, Jillian's self-involvement and steamroller ways, not to mention her refusal to listen, even for a second, to Natalie's objections, mark her as oblivious and insufferable. (She won't hear a word about the grievances of Native Americans; as far as she is concerned, we are all cousins, having descended from the same woman in Africa; to say that this notion cuts no ice with Arella is putting it mildly.) Jillian's marriage to Graham is hardly more credible; she confesses her Alzheimer's secret during foreplay on their first date -- Informed Consent is filled with such cutesy touches - but they marry anyway, apparently without ever having a serious discussion of the topic.

Most oddly, the play seems to criticize Jillian for conducting research that contradicts the tribe's beliefs, an argument that wouldn't hold water if we were talking about, say, Pentecostal Christians and the teaching of evolution. Later, in a kind of dramatic triptych, we see Jillian explaining the basics of cell division to her daughter while Graham reads one of his children's stories and Arella recounts her tribe's creation myth. The clear implication is that all forms of knowledge are equally valuable ways of reading the world; it's an everything-is-beautiful moment that doesn't begin to grapple with the complicated issues of class, ethnicity, religion, and science raised here.

The director, Liesl Tommy, works with the script's presentational style, which involves lots of direct address and all sorts of showy casting stunts -- men playing suburban matrons and adult women playing little girls. These add an extra patina of sugar to a play that needs desperately to be more astringent. Benko, one of the best and most underrated actresses in the New York theatre, works extra hard at giving Jillian a kind of daffy lady, mad scientist charm, but she can do only so much; nevertheless, she has some fine moments, especially in a monologue when, defending her actions in a prepared speech, she suddenly discovers she can't find the right words. As Arella, Delanna Studi is forced to look pained and lecture Jillian about the perfidy of the white man, a strategy that renders her strangely unsympathetic. The rest of the cast -- Pen Bandhu as Graham, Jesse J. Perez as Ken, Myra Lucretia Taylor as the dean -- do the best they can with their one-dimensional roles.

Wilson Chin's set, backed by a wall of storage boxes and four sets of spiral staircases, is a pleasingly abstract concept that well serves a play set in many locations; the upstage wall is also a projection screen for Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's imagery of words, genetic code, and some stunning views of the Grand Canyon. Jacob A. Climer's costumes, Matthew Richards' lighting, and the original music and sound design by Broken Chord are all thoroughly solid. Informed Consent ends on an arresting note, as Jillian writes a letter to her daughter, to be read only after the Alzheimer's takes over. Most interestingly, it's a kind of dismissal, urging her daughter to look her over and walk away forever: "When that happens, you can be sad that your Mommy died. And then don't come back again. I don't want you to see me like that. It's not me." It's a heartbreaking moment, rendered with devastating precision by Benko; if the rest of Informed Consent was this honest and tough-minded, it would be a knockout.--David Barbour

(18 August 2015)

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