I didn’t think I was ready to attend live theater again — only the prospect of a new play by the always reliable John Morogiello performing in a winning combo with the irrepressible Rebecca Herron at Best Medicine could wrestle me out into theater again. Variant Strains hits all the high marks, and the subject couldn’t be more topical to entice even the most wary (and hopefully fully vaccinated) patrons back into (nicely spaced) seats for a fun time you just can’t get in front of your computer screen.
Herron as Erin runs a biotech lab (Inoculaire, in Gaithersburg, right), hellbent on keeping up with and maybe even finally surpassing the top-notch competition (Vaxico) in developing an effective vaccine for a new unheralded strain. In these heady times, her trailing runner-up status won’t keep her solvent — her company has to produce or else.
Here’s where John Morogiello as her trusty sidekick Mitch comes to the rescue. He’s been in her corner as the lab provocateur in their early days and helped her get promoted to chief executive while he took a backseat as Innovation Officer. Over 18 years he rallied the company with creative ideas, railing against the competition, preparing smashing press releases, enough to keep Inoculaire in the race, which worked all those years, until now. In this day of immediate profit margins and digital alerts, they need a scoop to stay in the game, and Mitch has some goodies up his sleeve. But will that be enough?
The roller coaster script is amazingly informative while dipping, twisting, and turning. We learn how vaccines provide effectiveness by focusing on specific segments in virus strands, all delivered with lighthearted clarity. Who knew?
While Erin frets on a call with PR, Mitch is beside himself, giddy with news that could save the day. He starts his song and dance, literally, to get her attention, and once he shares the great numbers from the latest trials, you’d think that would be enough to resolve and fix everything. They set up a press conference in an hour — a press release would be just ho-hum blasé. Mitch dances around some more with razzmatazz and delightful jazz hands while watching the stock prices inch upward on his phone.
But then they find out that Vaxico has set up a press conference just 15 minutes before their own, and includes CNN. Uh oh. That could be trouble. The virus race is cut-throat winner takes all and everybody else is kicked to the curb. Mitch and Erin frantically call Everybody in their contact list to find out who knows what, with rapid-fire intensity, culminating in a call to the mother lode, NIH and Fauci himself. In Stan Levin’s steady hands as director, hilarity ensues.
With vested interest in Erin and her family, and the steadfast support from Mitch, we yearn for them to succeed despite lots of unknowns. What is Vaxico about to announce? Did they actually achieve the same spectacular results? What else does Mitch have up his sleeve that he hints could be a malicious though final resort?
The black box space in the corner of Lakeforest Mall continues to serve well as the characters lay out possibilities, options, scenarios, and consequences. Sound design by Levin opens the show with Huey Lewis and the News, “I Want a New Drug,” and Morogiello even pulls off sinister lighting as Mitch proposes a lucrative option that could have devastating consequences.
Artistic director and playwright Morogiello describes Variant Strains as “a dark comedy about the current moment. It’s the story of a fictional vaccine company in Maryland that is willing to consider nefarious means to prevent their rival from getting its product to market before them… It’s hilariously sinister kind of like Mamet meets Shaw meets me.”
Best Medicine will be celebrating its fifth season this fall with a lineup of renowned writers and fun scripts. It’s the little engine that keeps cranking out fun, no matter what.
Even when you don’t think you’re ready to take that next step, Variant Strains is a good comedic nudge to enjoy live theater again. Believe me, you won’t look back.
The world is slowly opening back up and in-person theater isn’t far behind. We need our stories, and the spin in Variant Strains is just what the (virus) doctor ordered.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Variant Strains produced by Best Medicine Rep runs at Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD, from June 4 to 27, 2021, with performances every Friday and Saturday at 7 pm, and every Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Parking is at the Green Flower entrance to the mall. Purchase tickets online.
Written by John Morogiello; Directed by Stan Levin; Cast: John Morogiello and Rebecca A. Herron; Voices: Stan Levin, Nayab Hussain; Costumes: Elizabeth Kemmerer; Sound: Stan Levin; Set: Stan Levin and John Morogiello; Lights: John Morogiello; Stage Manager: Rachel Borczuch