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Nancy Palk plays Dr. Guzman, who, determined to study her student, holds him hostage and threatens to burn him with sulphuric acid.

Cylla von Tiedemann

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Sequence
Directed by
Andrea Donaldson
Actors
Starring Kevin Bundy, Ava Jane Markus, Nancy Palk, Jesse LaVercombe
Venue
Tarragon Theatre

Déjà vu is not one of the perceptual mysteries explored in Arun Lakra's Sequence, which looks at numbers, genetics and religion to question whether luck legitimately exists. But the play is so redolent of a whole school of math-themed theatre (Proof, A Disappearing Number, Arcadia, Copenhagen) that I couldn't shake the funny feeling I'd seen it all before.

It's not solely its thematic content that makes Sequence feel like well-trodden terrain. Lakra, a debuting playwright and ophthalmologist based in Calgary, is rather good at finding blind spots in the debate between randomness and fate. He knocks the topic off its secular-religious axis by suggesting (with a hint of irony) that luck itself could be genetic and hence, in a way, fated. And I wouldn't attribute the feeling of déjà vu to the play's structure, which is interesting; two separate storylines overlap in topic, trajectory and physical space (the program notes tell us they're meant to resemble the intertwined strands of a double helix).

What makes it all feel so stock is that the play is essentially an exercise in ideas; other theatrical ingredients are either flattened to fit inside them or inflated to the point of absurdity in order to make them work.

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In the first storyline, Theo (Kevin Bundy) is on a book tour as Time magazine's luckiest man in the world.

He's made himself rich off a 19-year winning streak on the Super Bowl coin toss and has built a sleazy persona around his success.

His onstage routine involves tempting bad luck (smashing a mirror, yelling "Macbeth!" and walking under a ladder) and telling breast jokes. After a show, he's accosted by an angry young woman named Cynthia (Ava Jane Markus) who doesn't believe in the vicissitudes of fortune. She engages him in a lot of glib, unconvincing dialogue that seems perversely focused on the fact she's wearing a miniskirt and on her suspicion that Theo wants to sleep with her.

But more unwieldy than this strained and showy flirtation is the plot: Cynthia is a math genius who needs to prove that Theo's luck is an upshot of the Fibonacci sequence, which has something to do with her unborn daughter's risk of genetic disease.

As this breathless, Da Vinci Code duet unfolds, we're introduced to storyline No. 2, which features Dr. Guzman (Nancy Palk), a mostly blind stem-cell researcher who's visited in her lab after hours by a religious student named Mr. Adamson (Jesse LaVercombe). Adamson is Theo's foil: the unluckiest man in the world.

Not only was he born with cerebral palsy and then left a paraplegic by a car accident, he's also earned the honour of scoring the lowest possible mark on Guzman's exam, answering all 150 questions incorrectly. Fascinated by this statistical improbability, Guzman is determined to study him. So she holds him hostage and threatens to burn him with sulphuric acid.

If all this sounds like a techno-thriller satire, that's not the theatrical world in which Sequence lives. Instead, these scenarios are presented earnestly and supported by lengthy diatribes on numbers, math, chaos, order, science and God. The characters function as mouthpieces for their respective positions and, as the two plots intertwine, we're left to assimilate biographical details and coincidences without emotional guidance. Disability and objectification are treated with a gratuitousness that feels, at best, naive.

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You can't help but empathize with the cast, who work hard to ground their underwritten characters and deliver their platitudinal lines with ease.

LaVercombe probably reveals the most humanity when, as Adamson, he speaks openly about his sexual inexperience and his desire to fall in love and be a father. Bundy is rather deft with Theo's smarminess and has flashes of compelling urgency as the play's tension builds. The female characters are more problematic, with Markus hitting the same notes in both attack and appeasement, and Palk rarely changing tack in her campaign for her hostage's co-operation.

Director Andrea Donaldson's overlapping staging left some questions about what exactly was going on. Adamson is clearly trying to escape from Guzman's lab, but the use of the ladder from Theo's book tour and his strategy of moving props around doesn't make his intentions clear. Similarly, Cynthia holds Theo hostage throughout their first few exchanges without wielding much in the way of keeping him there.

Sequence first garnered attention by winning the grand prize in the 2011 Alberta Playwriting Competition. It makes me wonder whether the play might impress more on paper than in performance.

Lakra is clearly dexterous in his understanding of statistics, probability and genes, and there's technical accomplishment in the way ideas bounce and recur throughout the two storylines. But it's surprising that the play was deemed ready for Tarragon's season: It lacks depth and is too short on character.

Sequence continues at the Tarragon Theatre until Feb. 12.

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