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Theatre in Review: Queen (NAATCO at ART/NY Theatres)

Stephanie Janssen, Avanthika Srinivasan. Photo: Jeremy A. Daniel

Those darn alternate facts get some nice people into a lot of trouble in Madhuri Shekar's taut tale of academic intrigue. Hard-working grad students Sanam and Ariel are sitting pretty -- so much so that their jealous classmates shun them at a departmental party -- thanks to their collaboration with Dr. Hayes, their supervisor on a study of colony collapse disorder. After intensive research, they have the goods: A pesticide made by Monsanto is shrinking the bee population at an alarming rate.

It's a clear case of doing well by doing good: Their findings are to be published with a triple byline in a leading journal, in conjunction with a presentation at a prestigious conference where Hayes will pick up an award. The women's prospects couldn't be brighter and, frankly, both need the validation. Ariel, a farm girl with a community college education, sees her chance for academic stardom. For Sanam, who takes nothing from her marriage-minded parents in India, the recognition confirms her professional status. As a capper, Hayes intimates that their work may help revive long-dormant legislation in Washington designed to save the bees.

Of course, there's a hitch, one small enough to escape one's notice at first but big enough to derail three careers. The study is based on six data sets gathered over the same number of years. But a final set, meant to bring the information thoroughly up to date, scrambles the results, suggesting that the Monsanto product may not be the only -- or even the primary -- cause of the vanishing bees. Sanam, the trio's statistician, scrubs the numbers assiduously, seeking to remove any confusing noise. But she is too meticulous not to notice that their methodology is somehow fundamentally flawed.

This news, coming as multiple deadlines loom, puts the trio under unbearable pressure. Then Hayes suggests -- at first implicitly and later out loud -- that maybe Sanam could massage the numbers just a bit, by "oversampling" the original data. After all, who would know? And doesn't it happen all the time? And, in the long run, aren't all three colleagues trying to do the right thing?

Suddenly, the celebration goes flat as everyone must grapple with painful moral and ethical questions. Shekar, a new face in New York theatre (she has several film and television credits), neatly traps her characters in a net of altruism and self-interest. Without this project, Ariel's prospects are imperiled; a single mother, she is barely getting by, and the thought of failure is unacceptable. Sanam wants the project to succeed but not at the cost of her integrity, the same quality that has allowed her to stand up to her family. And as Hayes's subtle manipulations grow more apparent, the women, formerly best friends, find themselves pitted against each other.

Shekar cleverly takes a hot-button societal issue - the ever-popular impulse to disregard facts in favor of ideology and/or gut feelings -- and complicates it by populating the play with well-intentioned, left-leaning characters. In her view, the impulse to shade the facts in the service of a greater good is all too human and must be resisted; yet, as she admits, sticking to the data can come at a steep cost.

Aneesha Kudtarkar's lean, swift staging emphasizes the script's strong bones while getting strong performances from the four-person cast. Avanthika Srinivasan's Sanam is cool in the face of controversy and tenacious about holding on to her ideas. Stephanie Janssen charts Ariel's mounting panic and self-recrimination, especially when second-guessing her decision to let her child's father walk out the door. Ben Livingston is affable yet not to be trusted as Hayes, who wants his results any way he can get them. Nearly stealing the show is Keshav Moodliar as the brash, self-adoring securities trader who, set up on an arranged date with Sanam, acts as her skeptical sounding board. Initially presented as a materialistic boor bragging about his friends "Tom and Gisele," he also has a sort of goofy charm that makes him a fine sparring partner.

For a play in which a fast pace is paramount, scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee has created an appealingly spare setup -- featuring an octagonal table, with an overhead hexagonal lighting unit -- that effectively stands in for various locations. Yuki Nakase Link's lighting effectively reshapes the playing area with fluidity and flair. Phuong Nguyen's costumes show a sharp eye for the way academics dress. The sound design by Uptown Works (Daniela Hart, Noel Nichols, and Bailey Trierweiler) includes such effects as party voices, restaurant background music, crying children, and the rumble of a beehive.

Queen builds to such a satisfying climax that the final scene plays a bit flat in comparison. Also, Shekar may be slightly minimizing the play's central issue, which continues to worry ecologists. But the ideas in Queen are urgent, the conversation is stimulating, and no one emerges from the fray unscathed. As the playwright makes clear, the search for truth doesn't always lead to the moral high ground. She is clearly a writer to watch and NAATCO is doing its job splendidly by bringing her to our attention. --David Barbour

(21 June 2022)

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