A gripping drama of love and blood pulses through ‘Phlebotomist’ at 1st Stage

In a dystopian near future, a twentysomething romance heats up steadily alongside a chilling public health crisis.

As if the current context of disease from coronavirus contagion weren’t already a brainful, along comes a hit British drama about disease born of genetics. The play is Ella Road’s The Phlebotomist — titled after the clinician who punctures veins and draws blood — and it’s set in a dystopian near future when sophisticated blood work can predict the afflictions one will succumb to and the probable duration of one’s life. In the tightly wound production now playing at 1st Stage directed by Alex Levy, a twentysomething romance heats up steadily alongside a chilling public health crisis. And the last 20 minutes are as gripping and blood-quickening as a tourniquet.

Lynette Rathnam as Bea and Josh Adams as Aaron in ‘The Phlebotomist.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

To begin, the lovers don’t meet cute; they meet clumsy. Bea, a young phlebotomist, scrambles to gather up vials of blood that tumbled to the floor when her cart overturned, and Aaron, a future wooer who happens by, tries to help. Josh Adams plays Aaron with arresting fervor, and Lynette Rathnam as Bea is luminous as she channels her character’s every thought and emotion. Rathnam and Adams’s physical connection throughout is beautiful to behold (intimacy coordination by Lorraine Resseger), and their riveting interactions are a master class in suspense as they keep in question whether their characters are right for each other. During the course of the play, Bea and Aaron court, move in together, get married, consider getting pregnant — all of it a familiar straight love story arc, except: They live in a dark world where one’s blood rating functions like a diagnostic class system. One’s propensity for various genetic diseases gets ranked on a ten-point scale and “low raters” (called subs) are at the bottom of society.

“I’m not that into this whole ratings thing though to be honest,” Aaron tells Bea in their first scene.

“No?,” Bea says.

“You know like all that dating profile blood verification bollocks,” Aaron continues, “shouldn’t we just go for who we fancy?”

Well, no. This world doesn’t work that way. Bea’s rating is 7-ish; Aaron tells her his is just under 9. This elitist numerology will hang over their heads with a weight that gets heavier and heavier.

The darkness of their world is evoked in Kathryn Kawecki’s set: abstract black-paneled walls that serve as projection screens and doorways, a strangely angular ramp, a place that is nowhere. Episodically there are projections and video interludes: clinical displays of blood-work panels, video inserts of increasingly ominous news, an earnest selfie feed from a MyRate dating app contrasted with footage of social unrest and breakdown, pro-rating and anti-rating polarization (projections by Patrick Lord, sound and original music by Sarah O’Halloran, lighting by Helen Garcia-Alton). Taken together, the show’s stagecraft effects become a window on the world and a chilling metastory backdrop to Bea and Aaron’s fraught flesh-and-blood story.

Anne Bowles as Char and Sasha Olinick as David in ‘The Phlebotomist.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Two supporting characters appear, both played extremely well. Char (Anne Bowles) is Bea’s good friend; she appeals to Bea for help faking her blood work to get a higher rating. David (Sasha Olinick) plays by turns a hospital porter who ambles in and a denizen of the streets who panhandles. Their lives too are significantly shaped by the rating system, but it is the drama between Bea and Aaron — as their love burns with passion then dies of deception — that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The actors seem to have made their British dialects their own (coached by Christine Hirrel), and the script is fresh, youthful, and alive. But Road writes in clipped speech fragments that characters clearly catch the sense of but that may take a moment to pick up on, especially some British idioms. Also, the story advances by various jumps and gaps in time that are signaled in quickly projected surtitles (“two months later,” etc.), which are not readily followable. Despite these minor comprehension challenges, one’s engagement with the story’s pulsing pace is not impeded. And there are plenty of shocking twists to come in both the outside world and Bea and Aaron’s relationship.

Lynette Rathnam as Bea and Josh Adams as Aaron in ‘The Phlebotomist.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The Phlebotomist is crammed with ideas and will likely leave you with a headful of thoughts to unpack —about, for instance, the ethics of genomics, “ratist” bigotry, whether biology is destiny, how we rank one another, eugenics (yes, eugenics). Road did not write an anemic script — and the 1st Stage production is a full-blooded heartstopper.

Running Time: Approximately two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

EXTENDED: The Phlebotomist plays through March 13, 2022, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets ($50 general; $47 seniors 65+; $15 students, educators, and military) can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856. The first 20 tickets sold for every show will cost only $20. Thursday evening tickets are $35.

The online playbill for The Phlebotomist is available here.

COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Click here for details.

THE PHLEBOTOMIST
Written by Ella Road
Directed by Alex Levy

CAST
Aaron: Josh Adams
Char: Anne Bowles
David: Sasha Olinick
Bea: Lynette Rathnam

PRODUCTION & DESIGN
Director: Alex Levy
Assistant Director: Deidra Lawan Starnes
Set Design: Kathryn Kawecki
Costume Design: Moyenda Kulemeka
Stage Manager: Bailey Howard
Technical Director/Props Design: Ash Jeffers
Dialect Coach: Christine Hirrel
Intimacy Coordinator: Lorraine Resseger
Projections Design: Patrick Lord
Associate Projection Design: Hailey Laroe
Assistant Projection Design: Clara Ashe-Moore

THE INTERLUDES CAST
Laura Artesi, Teresa Castracane, Amanda Forstrom, Catie Flye, Tyler Herman, Jeremy Hunter. Patrick Joy, Jane Margulies Kalbfeld, Ramya Kappagantula, Nikki Mirza, Sarah O’Halloran, Ania Osinski, Farrell Parker, Tuyet Pham, Harrison Smith, Deidra Lawan Starnes, Jacob Yeh

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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