Math is a tool to make sense of the way things work. A minuscule discrepancy becomes the catalyst for a crisis in “Queen,” a heady and data-heavy new play by Madhuri Shekar that opened on Tuesday night at the ART/New York Mezzanine Theater. A hair’s breadth deviation upends not just the outcome of a yearslong study, but how a team of scientists conceive of themselves and life’s purpose.
The title refers to matriarchal honey bees, whose declining population is the problem a group of researchers aims to solve. We’re at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where two industrial Ph.D. Candidates have designed a study to pinpoint pesticides as the primary culprit in what’s known as “colony collapse disorder,” or the decimation of bees. Their reputations, and the future of pollination, depends on its success.
Ariel (Stephanie Janssen), an ecologist and single mom, broke up with an ex to pursue the project, risking her livelihood to take down the chemical conglomerate she blames for putting her beekeeping family out of business. Sanam (Avanthika Srinivasan) is a meticulous mathematician from India whose rich parents keep setting her up with suitors she considers a threat to her ambitions her. (“Think of everything I could accomplish if I had a gay husband who would happily leave me alone!” she says, only half joking.) Their professor (Ben Livingston) just wants the numbers to add up, so he can present his students ‘ findings and reap most of the glory.
Sanam’s latest mismatched blind date, Arvind (Keshav Moodliar), a swaggering Wall Street analyst with a surplus of smarm, at least contributes some brain power to her statistical dilemma. Their awkward first meeting leads to a late-night breakthrough in the lab (but no funny business) that further clarifies the mathematical impasse impeding the project, if not the physics that are meant to be propelling the story forward.
The play spends the first half of its 105-minute running time spelling out the details of the study, and the potential missteps that led to an unexpected outcome. Methodical minutiae are positioned as compelling revelations. Jargon dominates arguments about process, crowding out welcome moments of direct connection between characters, all of whom are fueled by presumptions of greatness. Throw in competition and petty jealousies — toward others in the field and among themselves — and it’s tough to find a foothold for sympathy. By the time relationships, between colleagues and lovers, become the ultimate focus, they lack the substantive evidence that would make them feel convincing.
Ariel and Sanam are driven by the desire to prove themselves extraordinary, that they might even be capable of saving the world through their intellects. Maybe that’s the essential delusion at the heart of much academic enterprise, but thwarted egos alone don’t make for especially high dramatic stakes. (Nor do the unseen deaths of insects, which we’ve been conditioned to find a nuisance despite their integral role in the food supply.)
The production, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar for the National Asian American Theater Company, is slick and compact. Glass-topped desks arranged in a honeycomb formation take up much of the black box stage in this set design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, limiting the playing space to their periphery. There’s a clean versatility to the staging that suggests the efficiency of a clinical exercise, if not an especially expressive or aesthetic one.
“Queen” raises sticky questions about ethics, integrity and the fallibility of accuracy in determining what’s real. But its fascination with empirical nitty-gritty comes at the expense of deeper character development and emotional resonance. Why bees? Why not bees — if observing scientists trying to save them can reveal something essential about who we are. But the conclusions that “Queen” draws are more theoretical than embodied. It takes more blood than intellect to feel a sting.
Through July 1 at the ART/New York Mezzanine Theater, Manhattan; naatco.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.