By Oline H. Cogdill
On the surface, Lauren Fein would seem to be immune to the fallout of the cancel culture. She’s a brilliant research scientist whose ground-breaking sickle-cell research brings in millions to the private university where she also teaches; a lesbian in a long-term relationship with her wife, an intelligent theater professor with whom she has been raising an African-American foster son for the past 13 years since he was a baby.
Yet a stray word, a misunderstood comment, a simmering grudge land this molecular biologist in the crosshairs of a cancel culture in Miami playwright Christopher Demos-Brown’s provocative, insightful The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, making its world premiere now through Feb. 18 at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein was commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks after Demos-Brown presented an idea to Producing Artistic Director William Hayes. “Chris came to me with the idea, then I commissioned the play, then I committed to producing the play after reading just Act One about two months later,” said Hayes.
“I said, ‘Act One is great. Finish it, it’s going on our stage next year’,” Hayes added/
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein illustrates how easy it is to accuse a person of bigotry, to use the shield of anonymity to target a person. Demos-Brown also delves into social media, mob mentality, parenting issues, a teenager seeking their identity, the challenges of a long-term marriage, homophobia, racism, political correctness run amok and the importance of political correctness, rivalry and arrogance, among other themes. That’s a lot to pack into a drama running a little over two hours, but Demos-Brown weaves in these various ideas without being bogged down.
Above all, The Cancellation of Lauren Fein shows how people are complicated—how sometimes what we say or even do doesn’t always align with what we believe.
Beautifully written by Demos-Brown, The Cancellation of Lauren Fein is further aided by a top-notch cast, each of whom has their moment to shine, and assuredly directed by Margaret M. Ledford. Demos-Brown’s The Cancellation of Lauren Fein excels in the unpredictable, keeping the audience’s expectations off kilter while providing plenty of room for various discussions. That’s indicative of Demos-Brown’s plays that include American Son, which made its Broadway debut in 2018 starring Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale.
In The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, Demos-Brown turns to the world of academia. Lauren Fein’s (Niki Fridh) main area of study is sickle-cell anemia. That’s her “passion,” and her research is brilliant. Her wife Paola Moreno (Diana Garle) proudly says “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, [she’s] one of the greatest genetic biologists on the planet.” As a favor, Lauren agrees to teach a course called Basic Human Biology and Reproduction—”one of those dumbed-down classes colleges offer humanities majors to satisfy their science distrib.”
Her lectures are prepared but Lauren often goes rogue with her remarks, deviating from her talking points. She also is used to talking to graduate students who understand the nuances of her analogies.
A comment she makes about evolution and Darwin is completely misconstrued and taken out of context. Lauren is called to the offices of Marilyn Whitney (Karen Stephens), the newly appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Lauren’s best friend. A student has made an anonymous complaint that Dr. Fein’s words caused them to “suffer a trauma.” This person says they “felt deeply triggered and unsafe.” The dean must investigate, even if she agrees with Lauren that the complaint seems “nonsense.” Marilyn can’t let their friendship prevent her from looking into the matter, and, hopefully closing the inquiry.
Lauren doesn’t agree, seeing no reason why she, a Nobel Prize frontrunner, should have to take time away from her research, including a planned field study trip. Lauren’s arrogant attitude, which is perfectly understandable, doesn’t help, especially when the complaints begin to roll in. Students, whether they know Lauren or not, seem united against her.
Lauren must go before a faculty senate hearing that will investigate if she has violated the university’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies. Every comment, party, her marriage, how her son, Dylan (Malcolm Callender), is being raised, their friendship with fellow professor Evan Reynolds (Bruce Linser) and more are put under the microscope.
The hysteria that surrounds Lauren and the push to have her fired, her research grants taken away, are comparable to the witch hunts in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. People have made up their minds about Lauren and no amount of reasoning or explanations will change their opinions, similar to the townspeople’s need for a scapegoat in The Crucible.
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein works as a tight ensemble, but each actor has a command of the stage at various times. As Lauren, Fridh’s anger is palpable, the tension and humiliation roiling off her as she sees her life disintegrating. Fridh and Garle have the easy banter of long-time couples. Garle’s Paola has often taken a backseat to her brilliant, intense wife, but Garle also delves into a character who is strong and not submissive. As the dean, Stephens again showcases her immense talent at portraying realistic characters.
Linser shows his comic timing as Evan uses humor to deflect the moment, yet also taps into his character’s jealousy and rivalry that seeps below his friendship with Paola and Lauren.
Odera Adimorah displays into the contradiction of his character Chikezie “Chi” Nweze, a Nigerian visiting biologist collaborating with Lauren on sickle-cell research. He often acts as a mentor to Dylan and is fiercely loyal to Lauren—he says he would take a bullet for her—and admires her intelligence and research. But he also is conservative and as much as he likes Lauren and Paola, he is repulsed that they are lesbians.
It’s always a welcomed treat when Stephen Trovillion makes a return to a South Florida stage. As Buddy McGovern, the lawyer who comes to defend Lauren, Trovillion exudes passion for his work and for his client. We look forward to Trovillion’s longer return soon.
Malcolm Callender illustrates the myriad emotions of a teenager who doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions.
Lindsey Corey is all steely-eyed and laser-focused as Melanie Jones, a professor of law and gender studies who is prosecutor of Lauren’s hearing, gleefully twisting each moment to portray Lauren in the worst light. Barbara Sloan as Judge Lorraine Miller who presides over the hearing and Kaelyn Ambert-Gonzalez as student Zoe each make the most of their minor but pivotal roles.
Palm Beach Dramaworks continues its outstanding attention to production values. Scenic designer Anne Mundell’s simple, tiered benches transitions well from a home, a classroom and a courtroom, aided by the lovely projections by video designer Adam J. Thompson that further establish the scenery. Costume designer Brian O’Keefe’s power suits for Corey and Stephens are on point as is Garle’s casual chic befitting a theater professor. Roger Arnold’s sound and Kirk Brookman’s lighting further set the tone.
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein continues through Feb. 25 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Running time approximately two hours, with a 15=minute intermission. Tickets are $89. For tickets contact https://www.palmbeachdramaworks.org/ or call 561-514-4042. Performances scheduled 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Thursday Feb. 8.