Asked to put forth a list of unexplored subject matter for a full-length musical, most people would probably leave the discovery of human DNA, well, unexplored. Nevertheless comes "Double Helix," which enjoys its world premiere now through June 18 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Whatever its minor flaws, this musical offers a compelling historical heroine, a satisfying musical score, and is, most of all, beautifully performed.
The play focuses on the career of Rosalind Franklin -- a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer who helped with the discovery of human DNA. We meet her as she arrives at King's College, London, in 1951. Her and her team's objective is no less than to identify and photograph the human genetic code for the very first time. "I want to discover what life is," Rosalind repeats.
We follow this highly talented and ambitious woman and she tries to navigate the very competitive, and very male, world of 1950s science. The goal is no less than the Nobel Prize, which both Franklin's team and other major scientists are racing toward.
In real life Rosalind Franklin was known as the "Dark Lady of DNA," as she was essentially pushed aside by her fellow researchers after significant contributions to human genetics. And so this is a musical that puts sexism in its crosshairs.
Its opening scene presents three men accepting the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix -- Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick. But no Rosalind Franklin. The majority of the action is in flashback as the show tracks how her male colleagues accept (or don't) a female researcher, and how they ultimately appropriate many of her ideas even as they elbow her from any claim to the credit.
As Rosalind, Samantha Massell is absolutely smashing, embodying the scientist as exacting, whip-smart, and reluctantly passionate, as she monomaniacally tries to solve the DNA question while maintaining an on-again-off-again romance with Jacques Mering, a French research scientist she has left behind in Paris.
Her main nemesis is Maurice Wilkins, played by a terrific Anthony Chatmon II. The real life Wilkins also worked on isotope separation for the Manhattan Project, and Mr. Chatmon plays him as haunted by his participation in the making of the atom bomb. This becomes the key to his ruthless ambition -- he wants the imprimatur of the Nobel to wash away his sins of mass destruction. "Physics is about death," he proclaims at one point, "biology is about life."
Reminding us that we are in the fantasy world of the musical, James Watson and Francis Crick are portrayed with outrageous simplicity -- that is to say as chauvinistic, beer-swilling Machiavellis.
Ironically, one of the livelier scenes finds the two of them, along with Wilkins, at a local pub, partying like a trio of ruffian undergraduates. They are celebrating a crude, early model of the DNA helix, which looks like a fourth-grade homework project and which Rosalind promptly excoriates. The portrayal of Watson and Crick as unserious fools is, of course, poetic license stretched to the absurd. Nevertheless, Max Chlumecky as Watson and Austin Ku as Crick embrace the hyperbole and run wild with it, spewing chauvinistic tropes with villainous relish.
In fact, the entire cast of "Double Helix" is, to a person, exquisite, and the director, Scott Schwartz, keeps the pace humming along at a brisk clip, never allowing the roughly two-and-a-half-hour show to lag.
Given the confines of the Bay Street stage, the set design is ingeniously austere. A rotating band on the stage floor allows for the illusion of ambling along London streets and offers a sense of larger spaces. A chalkboard backdrop is adorned with daunting mathematical equations and opens to allow the arrival of lab tables with crude-looking tubes and goosenecks, but they are in fact exact facsimiles of the scientific hardware of the day (I looked this up).
Madeline Myers, the playwright, did a lot of heavy lifting with "Double Helix," composing the book, music, and lyrics. And even if there isn't that single, unforgettable number in the score, there is a constant stream of hummable, emotionally moving tunes and gripping drama.
Where, ultimately, is the play headed? Whether DNA can compete with the likes of lions and witches on Broadway remains to be seen. For local theater lovers, however, "Double Helix" is like its heroine -- passionate, obsessively detailed, and dramatically satisfying.
Tickets start at $49.99. Complete showtimes are at baystreet.org.