Call "The Last of His Kind" slow, talky, unfinished and - as of the preview on May 9 - under rehearsed. But it does make you think.
Jack Dalton's latest play, now being debuted at Out North, is part social commentary, part science fiction. Set centuries in the future, after a time of tribulations (and the second coming of Christ that "didn't work out as expected"), the world has become a resolutely homogenized place. Mosquitoes are endangered, found only in labs. Language has been leveled to the point that only one cuss word remains. And the human genome has been manipulated to erase as much diversity as possible.
But it has come at a cost. The culture is one in which people "know everything, but don't think." Individuals are ranked in castes according, it appears, to the viability of their DNA, perhaps adjusted for educational levels and assorted, meaningless post-doctoral degrees. Slave-like clones provide labor. Genetic degradation, leading to shortened lifespans, has reached crisis levels.
In an industrial laboratory, a scientific team races to find a solution to the problem. Their great hope is Losh, "the last indigenous person" on the planet, a repository of genetic diversity that might save homo sapiens. But his "natural" genome also has problems and Losh is dying of cancer.
Losh (James Jensen) is kept in confinement, studied, probed, gawked at by tour groups, but silent and listless. The frantic scientists, Lilyann and Dr. Brightman (Andrea Staats and Douglas Causy) argue about how to treat him and achieve results. They're assisted by Crusher (Mark Bautista) who, despite being a low "level 10" worker has achieved some notable scientific discoveries himself. He's also among the many who, we learn, consider Losh to be something of a god.
At the end of a tour, a noisy child (Kyra Jensen) triggers something in Losh and he utters his first word in years, "Grandmother." Shortly after that, an emergency causes Lilyann to be trapped with Losh in his cell. In the second act, they talk at length about cosmology and science.
Here is where the playwright tries to make his key point: What is a person? Do clones have souls? Do people? In his notes, Dalton writes, "How much can we lose and still be human?"
Good questions, and the setup of "The Last of His Kind" may be a good way to address them. But it might work better as a novel than as a play. In this version, there are two problems. One is the near total lack of action; throughout the second act we are told things about the characters and what they think, not shown who they are by their responses to the unexpected. It can be intellectually dramatic, but it never becomes exciting.
The second is that the ending feels tacked-on - perhaps like three endings tacked one onto the other. This could be an attempt to reconcile elements that seem to contradict each other: Losh has volunteered for this imprisonment. Dr. Brightman is empathetic but has done something terrible to the rest of Losh's family. The lab boss (David Haynes, sadly underemployed here) is a frightening bully in the first act and inexplicably a mensch in the last. The conclusion of general exoneration, acceptance and neutrality is appropriate to philosophy, but difficult to turn into effective theater.
Insofar as the play is effective - and it kept me interested - it's because of the ideas, which come close to making up for the want of stagecraft.
Ed Bourgeois directs. Arianna Coulter-Khan has the short part of the tour guide.
Patrons attending the two hour play this first weekend are advised to check out the invitational art show in the gallery. Among other items are a fabulous goose by Rachel Dowdy and a remarkable painting by Ryan Romer. Most of the work is abstract or conceptual, including some audio thing involving smart phones by Matthew Burtner. But there are also three excellent small landscapes by Bud Uminski. The show ends on Sunday.
"The Last of His Kind" will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday this weekend, then go on hiatus. It will return for shows May 16-19.