Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through May 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
As I write this on Earth Day, which also marks the March for Science in cities all over the country, I’m pleased to say that 2017 is turning into a very good year for plays about the sciences and scientists. “The Hard Problem” at Court Theatre and “A Disappearing Number” at TimeLine Theatre come to mind, and upcoming productions include “Relativity” (about Albert Einstein) at Northlight Theatre and “The Radiant” (about Marie Curie) at Genesis Theatrical Productions.
The world premiere of Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen” at Victory Gardens Theater is a welcome addition to the list. The buzz started at VG’s 2015 IGNITION Festival of New Plays, but the subject—bee colony collapse disorder—couldn’t be more timely.
That’s especially true because Shekar doesn’t limit her inquiry to the disappearance of the honeybees and the consequences for the planet’s food supply, she tackles bigger moral questions about scientific integrity, academic bureaucracy, loyalty, “confirmation bias,” and the pressures that drive people to make compromises they know are wrong. She also offers some offbeat insights into human nature and does all this with grace and wit, thanks partly to Joanie Schultz’s savvy direction and a strong cast.
Although the 90 minutes get off to a lackluster start with two women at a departmental happy hour party discussing a two-year-old girl who bites, and some of the exposition is handled clumsily, the basic premise emerges pretty quickly. The women, both PhD candidates at the university in Santa Cruz, California, are Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepi), a single mother from a poor background who is a bee-keeping scientist, and Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty), a math whiz originally from India. They have been working for more than half-a-dozen years under Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer) on a project to prove that Monsanto pesticides are responsible for the bee collapse and are about to publish their findings in the prestigious journal “Nature,” a major boon for their careers and Hayes.
But just as the deadline for an important conference approaches, Sanam discovers a miscalculation. A final set of data she was asked to feed into the ground-breaking statistical model she developed is
producing different results from all the others, and they threaten to render the rest “inconsequential” and the whole experiment invalid. (There’s a lot of discussion of the math involved that I don’t pretend to understand.)
After futile attempts to fix the problem, she and Ariel have a serious falling out over how to proceed.
Ariel, who depends on their paper to get the job she’ll need to support herself and her daughter, is extremely upset as she sees the work that’s consumed her for years and caused her to break off her relationship with the child’s father about to go down the tubes. She basically suggests fudging the numbers and going forward with their presentation since it’s unlikely anyone will notice something is wrong. Sanam, who doesn’t need the money and prides herself on her creds as a scientist, is indignant at the the idea and wants to tell Dr. Hayes that they simply require more time. Angry words are exchanged, damaging the friendship that underlies their professional collaboration.
More twists and turns in their positions ensue when they discuss the issue with Dr. Hayes. As head of the project, he’s under pressure from the university for a successful outcome and arguably has the most gain. He’s also more cynical than either of the women, and claiming that he knew all along there was a problem (we don’t know whether to believe this), views a little falsification as no big deal. Ariel and Sanam, both passionate about their efforts to save the bees and believing they can have an impact, are aghast. Risking the ruin of their careers, they threaten to expose his fraud if he goes forward with the presentation and with publishing the paper under his name.
While Ariel and Sanam are at the center of “Queen,” the most interesting interaction comes from the most unlikely relationship. Sanam, whose parents are determined to arrange a marriage for her, fix her up with Arvind Patel (Adam Poss), a Wall Street trader in his late thirties who has been playing the field for years. We initially see them on a first date at a Japanese restaurant, and they couldn’t be more different. He is, to put it mildly, a real jerk who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously, ridicules liberals and hippies, and regales her with details of his poker playing oblivious to her indifference.
Then something unexpected happens. Sanam realizes that his ability to predict cards may hold the key to fixing her miscalculation, and as she launches into an extensive mathematical explanation, instead of being put off, he’s turned on by her intelligence. When she invites him to her office to look at her figures, he misconstrues her intent, of course, but they do see each other again, and she comes to appreciate his point of view and considers marrying him even though they remain incompatible. In fact, he gives her what may be the plays most valuable piece of advice. In assessing her fight with Ariel, he tells her that she has to decide what’s most important to her.
“Queen,” which also holds out hope that some problems will eventually solve themselves—in this case, thanks to the bees—is a small play, but it deals with big dilemmas in a compelling way, and I found myself caring about the characters, especially Mohanty’s strong, quirky Sanam.