At the movies or in print, outbreak sagas can be about as juicy as it gets: The race against time! The draconian quarantines! The nerdy heroes saving human civilization! But how do you make an epidemic exciting onstage? Viruses are hard to see, and rarely enter on cue.
This is the challenge facing Matthew Maguire in his new drama, Instinct, now at the Lion Theatre—a dilemma Maguire and director Michael Kimmel fail abjectly to solve. A virulent SARS outbreak has summoned two couples, each of which is also a world-class scientific team, to the CDC for emergency strategizing. While Mara (Kim Blair) and Daniel (Jeffrey Withers) chart the Alabama-based epidemic’s spread, Fermina (Amirah Vann) and Lydia (Maggie Bofill) labor feverishly to concoct a vaccine.
Unfortunately, Maguire uses this national crisis as the backdrop to a belabored couples’ therapy session. Should Mara and Daniel reproduce? Should Lydia pursue speedy career advancement, or (as Fermina insists) take the time for plodding but thorough experiments? Should we really care? Shocking no one, most of this angst stems from barely buried childhood traumas, which spill out, monologue-style, at every turn. Maguire is determined to cram every big question into these lovers’ spats: The protagonists debate Darwinism, God, and the ethics of test-tube reproduction (even while, presumably, exponentially expanding populations contract the deadly disease).
The cast plays along gamely, but Kimmel’s pacing problems compound Maguire’s clunky plotting: Throughout, awkward direct addresses keep us abreast of the escalating numbers of ill and dead, even while the domestic squabbles distract us from the pressure of rapidly swelling contagion. My diagnosis: Instinct has a severe (and acute) case of pretentious playwriting syndrome.
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