Though it involves issues of medical research priorities and the AIDS epidemic — and is penned by a playwright-epidemiologist who has presented his HIV research at the Intl. AIDS Conference — Kevin Fisher’s “The Monkey Room” finally seems driven primarily by office politics. This tale of a vaccine-questing lab in danger of being shut down due to lack of funding comes off as curiously slight given the weightiness of its themes. Interesting nonetheless, the brisk one-act would benefit from expansion to include a sense of real-world consequence behind its seriocomic collegial bickering.
Mark Routhier’s deft world-premiere production commences as lab staff return to James Faerron’s realistically detailed, nondescript institutional set after attending a memorial for their abruptly deceased boss, a well-known scientist whose name had ensured grant support.
Now that he’s gone — and the money pledged thus far mostly spent — it’s an open question whether the project will be able to continue.
Ava (Lauren Grace), an all-work-no-play type who was largely steering the project herself even before the chief’s demise, is deeply invested in its survival. Geneticist Zach (Kevin Rolston) is more pragmatic about possibly having to move on, though he hopes not before being able to act upon his ill-concealed romantic interest in Ava.
Young assistant Freda (Jessica Kitchens) doesn’t want her career to end before it’s launched. Tactless and clueless about most things, she’s good with the offstage monkeys (not seen but definitely heard in Sara Huddleston’s sound design) being used as test subjects.
Worries over the study’s fate get a lot more immediate with the arrival of Dr. Neil Lewis (Robert Parsons), who turns up like a vulture before the chief’s corpse is cold. Brusque and bullying, he tells the staff he has come to determine whether their funding will be renewed, giving them one day to prove why it should be.
Reluctantly, Ava has to reveal her still-very-tentative findings: Four of the chimps have shown no health consequences at all despite repeat exposures to HIV. Thus Ava’s idea is to develop a vaccine that doesn’t make the human immune system work harder, but rather less, like chimpanzees’ immune systems.
Ava’s challenge is to show that what works in a petri dish, or a chimp, could also work on people? Meanwhile, an inadvertent discovery made by Freda (and kept secret) creates an “unintended experiment” that might ballast Ava’s ideas. Posing other problems are her mixed emotions about Zach, and other staff members rallying against her appointment as project chief.
Though well played, these characters are all on the prickly side, making it hard to find a rooting interest. Nor is the nobility of the vaccine quest much in evidence, as Ava admits she’s “no humanist” but simply, obsessively dedicated to her research. Her final sacrifice rings both hokier and less emotionally stirring than it should. And the romance feels a forced pander to audience access, with humorless Ava and jokester Zach mismatched anyway.
How/why some such potentially world-changing studies get funded while others don’t is fascinating ethical territory that “The Monkey Room” could have explored much further.
If they don’t entirely draw us in, these people nonetheless hold attention, mostly for their faults — Kitchens’ Freda in particular is annoying in ways deftly specific to today’s “Where the hell’s my dot-com boom?!” twentysomethings.
“The Monkey Room” is brisk, often amusing and incisive, but the sword of Damocles hanging over a potential end to a global epidemic ought to bear more dramatic oomph than it does here.