The Catastrophist Review: Lauren Gunderson’s surprising new play about a real-life scientist of pandemics (her husband)

“The Catastrophist,” streaming today through February 28th (Update: extended through July 28), is a timely, informative and often eye-opening portrait of a widely respected virologist – a man whose job it is to study viruses and prevent pandemics – written by the most produced playwright in America. There are a few surprises in it. The playwright, Lauren Gunderson, is married to the scientist, Nathan Wolfe.

What this winds up meaning is that in-between some essential facts and fascinating tidbits about viruses and epidemics, the 75-minute solo play becomes unexpectedly personal.  As Nathan, actor William DeMeritt traces the ups and downs of his life, and by extension his wife’s — moments of grief, joy, anger and regrets that have nothing to do with his work.

There is an argument for this approach; “The Catastrophist” is a drama, not a science documentary, and Gunderson has more access to the personal life of this scientist than she did to, say, Marie Curie (whose personal side she  also attempted to dramatize.) There feels something brave about opening yourself up in this way as well. 

Yet, there were times when these interludes felt like odd distractions from what is currently the most urgent topic on earth.

“The Catastrophist” is not specifically about Covid-19; it’s set in 2016, as if to avoid focusing entirely on this one pandemic. But Marin Theater Company’s artistic director Jasson Minadakis commissioned the play from Gunderson during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the aim of presenting it during the pandemic, which is why it’s a literal world premiere – premiering online, directed by MInadakis, in a co-production with Round House Theater.

That it’s available world-wide counts as a treat in particular for New York theatergoers, who have gotten few chances to see any of Gunderson’s two dozen plays (much less their world premieres), many of which are popular in regional theaters throughout the rest of the country.

Filmed  on stage in Marin’s empty Boyer Theater,  DeMeritt begins the play sounding confused, as if he doesn’t realize he’s in a play. It’s the first  meta-theatrical bit in a play full of such playfulness; at times he says things like “My wife would like me to tell you …” as if she’s reacted off-stage to something he just said, and wants him to correct it. 

Eventually,  he explains the convoluted route he took to studying pandemics, a colorful path that began when he watched a TV documentary about gorillas when he was a boy and spent the next two weeks pretending to be one – which eventually led to field studies in Uganda and Cameroon, which led to his collecting blood samples from both wild animals and the people who ate them……which led to the revelation that “all new pandemics come from animals.” Zoonotic infections,  they’re called; “these are diseases jumping from an animal into a human.”

He tells us he hates pandemics; that his wife can tell you how he frequently blurts out his hatred for them.  “I spent a majority of my adult life studying them and preparing for them and trying to prevent them and I feel like I’m always in a bit of a chess match with them, and it is not fun. I mean chess is fun. Pandemics are not.”

Along the way, he tells us things that we don’t know, and should (He bluntly calls out our “general scientific illiteracy as a species.”) 

When he details the difference between viruses and bacteria, for example, it highlights one of the main strengths of “The Catastrophist” – the script’s respect for  the audience’s intelligence while taking the time to make such explanations clear… and stunning.

These wonderful explanations are not just about the specific science of pandemics; they are about the way a scientist looks at life.

To pick an especially memorable example, scientists talk about a science of risk — assessed, Nathan tells us, by a unit of measurement called a micromort, and then uses micromorts to quantify specific activity:

“Skydiving – 8 micromorts per jump.
Riding a motorcycle – 10 micromorts
Living one week as an average person – 6 micromorts.
So if you’re not afraid of dying this week, you shouldn’t be afraid of rock climbing, scuba diving, horseback riding, or taking an airplane all of which are less than that.
Getting killed by a shark? Less than 1 micromort. Which is essentially the same as being killed by a kangaroo. So. Perspective.

Playing football, 20 micromorts
Using heroin – 30 micromorts
Giving birth? Yeah. 210 micromorts. Way worse than heroin. Attempting to climb Mount Everest… 39,000 micromorts.”

Then he riffs on the opposite measurement, a microlife — which is how much you gain in life expectancy for a good habit, roughly one-half hour of life expectancy per microlife. “Going for a 20 minute run? 2 microlives gained!”

“The Catastrophist” features a Gundersonian surprise that I of course shouldn’t reveal; I turn the playwright’s name into an adjective because of the supernatural twist she put in one of her most popular plays, “I and You”

The twist in the new play is not exactly supernatural, but I deem it risky; I can’t determine how many micromorts, but it’s more than compensated for by the microlives gained by watching the rest of “The Catastrophist.”

The Catastrophist
Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theater
Available through February 28
Written by Lauren Gunderson

Directed by Jasson Minadakis

Cast: William DeMeritt

Producer Nakissa Etemad, dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers, costume designer Sarah Smith, lighting designer Wen-Ling Liao, composer and sound designer Chris Houston, director of photography Peter Ruocco, assistant director Christina Hogan, and COVID compliance officer Liz Mastos. ->

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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