The line between homage and ripoff confronts and confounds artists all the time: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Picasso famously said (practicing what he preached). It’s true in journalism and academia as well; we appropriate the work and sometimes even the lives of others to bend to our own purposes. Informed Consent, a new play by Deborah Zoe Laufer given a heavy-handed production by Liesl Tommy at off-Broadway’s Duke on 42nd Street, approaches theft with heart on sleeve and mind, well, all over the place. But its themes, drawn from the life, are terrifically compelling.
Tina Benko pays Jillian, a genetic anthropologist at an Arizona university who is hired by her mentor Ken (Jesse L. Perez) to investigate the high incidence of diabetes in a fast-dwindling tribe living at the floor of the Grand Canyon. Jillian is young, intense and science-obsessed. Ken is older, a cultural anthropologist with personal and professional ties to the tribe. He warns Jillian to take it slow and concentrate on the issue at hand. But the protégé is deep into the science of universal connection — “There are no genes that indicate race,” she proclaims. “Race is a fiction. It’s a myth. All of the things we see as race are about migratory patterns!”
For Jillian, such scientifically rare cohort of subjects shielded from the rest of the world constitutes a dream sample for study. Convincing the reluctant tribe members to let their blood to be drawn, she uses the sacred fluid to run extensive genetic testing that reveals the migration history that led them to this place. It’s history they do not want to hear, their belief that they were created from the canyon being central to their cosmology. “We didn’t give you permission to make speeches, to say in public like this that we didn’t come from the Grand Canyon, that we came from Asia,” says Arella (DeLanna Studi), Jillian’s dubious fixer with the tribe. “We would never have given our blood for that. For you to deny our beliefs.”
This aspect of Informed Consent is based on the true story of the Havasupai tribe and its successful suit against Arizona State University for using blood samples to perform research that went beyond the scope of what had been outlined in the consent forms each member had signed. At times, Jillian seems like the stereotype of a driven academic, oblivious to the human dimension and consequences of her work despite her humanistic view of mankind. Stay the hell out of her way.
Laufer offsets Jillian’s calculatedness with a subplot about her own race against time: Both her maternal grandmother and her mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, and she has the gene that surely will make her a victim too. Moreover, it’s likely that her young daughter will have it as well, though her loving and decidely non-scientific husband does not want her tested — a position that is, of course, anathema to Jillian.
Who owns the culture? Who gets to tell the story? What story will Jillian’s daughter have as she grows, possibly motherless? I wish Liesl Tommy’s staging — a co-production of Primary Stages and Ensemble Studio Theatre — were as compelling as Laufer’s script. It’s painful to watch grown actors playing children, and the doubling and tripling of roles is confusing. More distracting is the way each character delivers his or her lines as a pronunciamento, so that the evening feels more like a harangue or soap-box derby than a humanly inhabited play. Nevertheless, I’ve found myself thinking about it long after leaving the theater in disappointment.
A.R. Gurney writes about a tribe as well, in his case that endangered species the upper-class American WASP, in beloved, acutely observed plays including Love Letters, The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and Sylvia (being revived on Broadway this season with Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford). Gurney has enjoyed a lively residency at the Signature Theatre, which closes out with Love And Money, a dreadful play.
It stars Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham, a white Upper East Side matron who has decided in her dotage to make amends for having been too rich by dispensing her fortune to worthy liberal causes. Her plans are jeopardized when her home is temporarily invaded by Walker “Scott” Williams (Gabriel Brown), a smooth-talking young African-American man who claims to be her long-lost grandson from her native Buffalo (Buffalo being the Fertile Crescent of Gurneyan WASPdom).
The fact that Gurney offers an explicit nod to the vaguely (very vaguely) similar setup of John Guare’s Six Degrees Of Separation seems more an act of deprecation than grace, as if to say even the writer knows Love And Money bears no comparison to Guare’s great play. Unfunny and pointless, L&M shouldn’t cast too long a shadow over what has been a revelatory restrospective. It was full of great productions and great moments from a writer who has much to say. Not here, though.