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Instinct

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Instinct
Kim Blair and Jeffrey Withers
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

A race against time can only be so exciting when it’s crammed full of pit stops. This is the lesson Matthew Maguire never quite learns with his new play Instinct, which just opened at the Lion Theatre. He’s taken what should be two sure-fire topics, the angst that occurs when long-term relationships suddenly splinter and a disastrous epidemic sweeping the United States, and so confusedly conflated them that neither ends up having an impact more severe than a case of the sniffles.

Don’t misinterpret that, by the way — this is not a play that will set your own waterworks gushing. It is, at its best, intellectual entertainment, or perhaps even theoretical. There’s no shortage of ideas and no trace of a follow-through that could even temporarily engage your emotions. That’s apparently Maguire’s intention: to look at matters of the heart and matters of the immune system through the same dispassionate lens and see the ways that they’re more alike than different, even if your own common sense would tell you something entirely different.

Still, the first few scenes suggest that executing this concept is not an impossibility. First, we spend New Year’s Eve meeting Mara and Daniel (Kim Blair and Jeffrey Withers), two married molecular epidemiologists who are tilting over Mara’s deciding, for the first time in their relationship, that she wants to have children, while Daniel remains vigorously opposed; and Lydia and Fermina (Maggie Bofill and Amirah Vann), two female vaccinologists who share both their personal and professional lives, but have yet to break through in their field. Then we’re introduced to the catastrophic outbreak of a new strain of fast-spreading SARS that’s currently threatening several Southern states and can likely only be stopped in time if the experts on viruses and the experts on vaccines join forces despite their different backgrounds and points of view.

The action of the play ostensibly covers four weeks, with every other scene or so beginning with an actor stepping to the lip of the stage and announcing the current numbers of the infected and dead. We see as the members of the quartet quarrel over the best way to analyze and deliver a cure — do full trials first, with in-depth research and placebos, to prove the vaccine’s efficacy, or simply put it out into the world and hope for the best? — and mull over the most efficient methods of solving problems from the inside out, often in debating new ways to trick the virus into killing itself. Weaving the couples’ relationship woes into this story would seem to strengthen both sides of the plot, as we see how their public demeanors involve their private lives, and their natural predilections for either fight or flight inform how they approach the SARS wars.

Instinct
Maggie Bofill and Amirah Vann
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Instead, Maguire flip-flops back and forth between the stories. First he focuses on an intense medical discussion, then he shows a scene of Mara and Daniel fighting about their prospective baby, then he punctuates a science-minded lab interlude with a 10-minute argument about the interplay of religion and rationality. If the goal of Maguire and his director, Michael Kimmel, is to show how disasters can bring out humanity’s worst and best in one fell swoop, their joint failure to establish any sense of the crumbling world beyond these people’s fields of vision sabotages it before we can glimpse it. Every time we start to grasp the gravity of what’s at stake in one area we’re whisked off to the other and any forward momentum is destroyed. Soon enough, Daniel is inviting Fermina to a basketball game, Mara is pondering artificial insemination, and any urgency is discarded like broken Bunsen burners.

Because the writing never creates a single complete character or story arc, and because the play ends (at 85 minutes) just when it should be ramping up, the actors face hopeless challenges. Blair comes the closest to succeeding in spite of the obstacles, almost linking Mara’s anger toward Daniel’s obstinacy with the seeming impossibility of the SARS struggle, but even she strains at making the arid, uncentered dialogue ring emotionally true. Vann has moments in which she teases some hints of a dark elegance beneath Fermina’s chilly exterior, but she, like the constantly struggling Withers and Bofill, simply doesn’t have enough to work with.

When the scientists they’re all playing reach impasses in their life-or-death work, as happens a couple of times during the show, they retreat, reexamine available evidence, and work out new conclusions based on what they know works and what they know doesn’t. Instinct collapses because Maguire hasn’t applied that same rigid approach to his writing, and lets himself expound at great length on his mistakes. Luckily, the play poses no risk of a pandemic, but there are times while watching the clunky back and forth of ill-fitting issues that it’s certainly infectiously boring.


Instinct
Through February 4
80 minutes, with no intermission
Lion Theatre, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge