Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Graduate students Ariel Spiegel (Stephanie Janssen) and Sanam Shah (Avanthika Srinivasan) are up against a figurative wall as they complete a project which supports the ecological value of honeybees, a threatened species. The pair have concluded that Monsanto pesticides are reality villains which could very well destroy the bees. A magazine called Nature is set to print the findings. The students' doctoral adviser at University of California Santa Cruz, Dr. Philip Hayes (Ben Livingston), pushes for closure.
Junghyun Georgia Lee's set for most of the production is a hexagonal table, and the performers play to all sides of the theater (some house seats are positioned to the rear). Yuki Nakase Link's lighting and Bailey Trierweiler's original music and sound are proactive as one scene shifts to the next.
The play's opening is a bit static, almost a talking head scene out of academia. It finds the Ph.D. students chatting: The scientific Sanam comes from India where her family evidently had some money while Ariel's working class roots indicate she is the very first to navigate through her undergraduate program and beyond. Ariel is the single mother of a two year old and she continues to struggle with her situations and choices. Sanam is wary of following her parents' idea that she marry an appropriate Indian man. When she meets Arvind Patel (Keshav Moodliar), though, she finds him attractive and alluring. They've been set up to meet since it is said that their grandfathers went golfing together. Arvind, a Wall Street type, is persuasive and he wants Sanam.
As the eleventh hour strikes in terms of submitting their article, Sanam (a precise and trained mathematician) finds an error in their calculations. The stop-and-go exchange of dialogue, from this time forward, focuses on an ethical dilemma and all four characters on stage boldly state their positions. Sanam says, "We have the answer. It's just not the answer that we want." The theme of Queen pits truth against pragmatism, and scripted back-and-forth moments are emotionally passionate.
The final portion of the play is crescendo-like as it builds to a surprising and absolutely heartfelt concluding sequence. It accentuates the give-and-take of two women working together while each grapples with difficult personal times. Here's what is clear: Queen is about many things, but the relationship between these intense women, united because they feel the contemporary world is in peril, is striking and captivating.
Playwright Shekar is talented and this work, once it gets rolling, is powerful and authoritative. Director Kudtarkar moves the characters around effectively but whenever Sanam's back is fully turned away from a section of theater patrons, actress Srinivasan's voice and enunciation cannot be fully appreciated. If that problem can be solved, the show will benefit.
While all four actors are skilled, Stephanie Janssen, as Ariel, is specifically acute. She has credits on and off Broadway, at multiple regional theaters, and on TV series such as "Succession" and "The Good Wife." Her Ariel wears her stress on her face and the actress's vocal dexterity matches her physical delivery. Janssen finds this anxiety-ridden soul's core.
Long Wharf Theatre presents Queen in association with NAATCO National Partnership Project (NNPP).
Queen runs through June 5, 2022, at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sergeant Dr., New Haven CT. For tickets and information, please call 203-693-1486 or visit Longwharf.org.