Capital T Theatre's DNA reveals more about how animals in a group behave than an episode of Nature

Leader of the pack: 
Nate Dunaway as Phil and Julia Bauer as Lea in <i>DNA</i>
Leader of the pack: Nate Dunaway as Phil and Julia Bauer as Lea in DNA (photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre)

If you want a quick lesson in pack behavior, you could always tune in to a nature documentary on PBS or Animal Planet. But for an up-close tutorial, head to the Off Center, where you may currently observe a pack live and in the wild. Now, that zoological descriptor isn't meant to be patronizing toward the band of teens in DNA, the dark comedy receiving its local premiere from Capital T Theatre. It's author Dennis Kelly himself who calls our attention to animal behavior through DNA's references to bonobos and the relative peacefulness of their society, and chimpanzees with their innate aggression and violence. It's the latter that really reverberates in our ears because the youths in this particular group are in a panic over the death of one of their own – a death precipitated by members of the group chucking rocks at the victim as he was trying to cross over a deep pit. The teens here act and react as one, a sort of primal social bond uniting them, and it drives them collectively to seek direction from Phil, clearly the group's alpha male. The cover-up he proposes – make that orders – will test the teens' loyalty to the pack.

Kelly chronicles these dark doings with an anthropologist's eye and an absurdist's ear. His young protagonists are still largely unformed as individuals, unable or unwilling to stand alone, which is why they take refuge among their peers, despite the pressure that at times involves. But he has them express themselves in comically incongruous ways ("I can't get mixed up in this, I'm going to be a dentist!") and in fractured teenspeak, you know, that kind of, like, talk that seems to be headed toward ... but then it never ... you know, and then it's, like, on to something ... and it never finishes that either. In Capital T's production, Julia Bauer masters that tricky brand of dialogue, her Lea nattering away at an impassive, silent Phil, her incomplete thoughts hurtling along as if her mind was moving faster than her mouth can keep pace with. The rapid-fire stream of half-finished statements is funny, but made all the funnier by Phil's taciturn demeanor, with Nate Dunaway mutely staring forward and slowly ingesting snack after snack after snack. But the preternatural calm that Dunaway projects feeds our sense of Phil as the natural leader of this insecure and anxious band; he's the only one with full confidence in himself, whose sense of self is complete. And when he finally does speak, it is with resolute authority.

But the situation proves to be a test for Phil as well, as Kelly provides twists that chip away at the alpha's dominance and certainty. Some of these arise naturally from the circumstances and deliver a genuine jolt, but others seem manufactured just to prod the characters along, leaving DNA feeling a tad schematic, like it was just some behavioral experiment the playwright was conducting. And the repetitive scene structure that Kelly employs makes it possible for the audience to get in front of the story. But director Molly Karrasch does her best to work against these shortcomings, keeping the pacing brisk and the tension alive. She's assembled a cast of appealing actors, and while they aren't much older than their characters, she draws assured performances from them all and – most impressively for a first-time director – meshes them into an effective ensemble, a credible pack of insecure, frightened, desperate youths who'd rather do anything to conceal a tragedy of their making than take responsibility for it.

With this pack, as in the wild, there may be strength in numbers, but there can be weakness, too, and all it takes is one wrong turn to send the whole group off a cliff. Survival, DNA suggests, sometimes depends on running from the pack.


The Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo
Through Feb. 1
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min.

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Capital T Theatre, Molly Karrasch, Dennis Kelly, Nate Dunaway, Julia Bauer

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