Play Review: “DNA” Resonates: Bottom Line Theater Impresses with Fall Debut

Before dress rehearsal last Tuesday night, DNA director Laura Steinroeder SC ’13 seemed to be everywhere at once: playing with the lights, retrieving a box of props, greeting actors as they entered Seaver Theater’s intimate Larch Studio, and allaying their concerns about their costumes (“I don’t think any shoes for you—I’ll get you some holey socks” to one cast member)—all while cheerily providing me with a synopsis and the background of the play. Before rehearsal even began, the play seemed to be in capable hands, and sure enough, DNA delivered on its promise: it’s a neatly directed piece that is simultaneously funny, thoughtful, and disturbing. It’s well-acted all around and lingers a while after the final scene.

DNA, put on by 5C theater troupe Bottom Line Theater, is about a group of 11 troubled students who think they’ve accidentally killed their friend Adam. They panic and eventually decide to plant false DNA evidence on Adam’s shirt—hence the title—and have the crybaby of the bunch, Brian, provide false testimony that he’d seen Adam kidnapped. Their invented story seems successful, and life goes on as usual—albeit without Adam—until the police find a man matching Brian’s description whose DNA matches the DNA on Adam’s shirt. Their master plan begins to unravel, and things get even messier when Adam is found alive in the woods. But by this point, the cover-up has taken on a life of its own, and the students are eerily compelled to maintain the network of lies that they have set up in place of reality.

Steinroeder finishes filling me in on the play, and the last of the actors straggles in. Then, rehearsal begins. The lights dim (for a few seconds too long—Steinroeder is still working out the lighting design), and barring a few minor mishaps, the 11 student actors put on a remarkably professional dress rehearsal performance for an audience of exactly one.

Adapted from British playwright Dennis Kelly’s script set in the wilderness, Steinroeder’s version occurs at a reform school in L.A. We don’t have much indication of time or place except in vague references to the school setting, such as, “Ever since I came to this school, haven’t I been trying to keep everyone together? Aren’t things better? For us?”

The play’s setting takes a back seat to the sharp dialogue and the interactions between characters. The stage is empty except for two black boxes that serve as seats and sometimes tables, and the play relies on very few props. The stark Larch Studio and the frequently short, spare scenes—often consisting of just two characters—only add a simple universality of a play about social dynamics and relationships.

Much of the story hinges on the dynamics of two pairs of actors: Mary (Lauren Rosenfeld PO ’11) and Jan (Megan Nevels PZ ’11), whose conversations often serve to alert the audience of plot developments, and boyfriend and girlfriend Phil (Alex Lydon PO ’08) and Leah (Katie Kerr PZ ’11).

Rosenfeld and Nevels play off of each other’s energy delightfully, adding a comic element to their alternating shock, disbelief, acceptance, and consternation.

Phil and Leah’s relationship is more complex. It, too, has subtly funny moments: from the beginning, Leah talks incessantly at Phil, analyzing their relationship, the meaning of life, and discussing the similarities between humans and chimps—who, she is dismayed to learn, are actually ruthless creatures—a dark commentary on the play itself. In every scene between the two, Leah muses, asks questions of Phil, and comes to conclusions, all while Phil eats an ice cream cone or a piece of candy, nodding and shaking his head mutely, entirely uninterested in Leah’s monologue (note that Kerr, the actor that almost certainly has the most lines of the play, recently suffered a concussion, yet still managed a compelling delivery of most of her monologues). The power dynamic of their relationship develops in an interesting and unexpected way, in no small part due to excellent performances by both Lydon and Kerr.

Whenever the group of students is at a loss of how to respond to Adam’s seeming death or later developments, they turn to Phil for guidance. Here, Lydon’s authoritative stage presence makes for a forceful character: he stalks about, authoritatively assigning students roles in covering up Adam’s disappearance; his voice becomes quiet and thoughtful, then an instant later creepily cold and merciless. His calm decisiveness in these crucial junctures contrasts disturbingly with the passive, apparently dim boyfriend he is when faced with Leah’s one-sided rants.

Adam, played by a stumbling, disoriented John Maidman PO ’11, makes a short yet memorable appearance after he is found to actually be alive. Maidman gives a captivating and believable speech during which he manages to be confused, pathetic, angry, and almost inhuman, all while struggling to recover his speaking abilities after a near-death experience.

The bareness of the studio and the simple, uncomplicated script combine to create a powerful, almost Lord of the Flies-esque meditation on what we are capable of doing out of fear and under the influence of a group mentality. At the conclusion, despite DNA’s short running time of just over an hour, each character has been deeply and believably affected by what has occurred.

DNA is one of 10 productions that Bottom Line Theater (of which Steinroeder is manager) is aiming to put on this year. Look for a one-act festival and a one-man mime show coming up soon.

The play will show at 6 p.m. tonight and 8 p.m. tomorrow in the Seaver Theater’s Larch Studio (to the right as you enter the complex). Admission is free.

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