Manbites Dog Theater Company continues its adventures in mind-bending theatrical experiences with its world premiere presentation of Nightwork. Written by Monica Byrne, a remarkable multi-talented woman whose background includes degrees in biochemistry from Wellesley and MIT as well as being a licensed pilot, this play does what any good piece of art should do: it forces you to think about it afterwards and rethink your attitudes of its substance.

On the surface Nightwork deals with a group of five eccentric graduate students in some field of biological research and their frustrations with the Ph.D. process, doubts about what they are doing and their interaction with their lab partners, plus the relationship with the mice that they sacrifice in the name of science.

We first meet Katharina (Annie Zipper), a seemingly painfully shy and withdrawn lab geek, who looks out at the audience with a blank stare and quickly proceeds to her lab bench to frantically try to complete some esoteric study for her thesis adviser Fritz. The next character is just the opposite as he roars in like a demented hurricane. Blair (Jeffrey Moore) is rude, crude, overbearing, obnoxious and someone who most people would feel certainly got what was coming to him in the closing moments of the play (no spoiler here – you’ll have to go see it). Bridget (Dana Marks) is close to a female version of Blair, but like many of the characters, she  evolves over the course of the play. Gordon, a very properly serious and mysterious man of few words played by Kashif J. Powell, and Rachel (Alex Young), an airhead beginning grad student who ends every sentence with an upwards inflection, rounds out this disturbing assemblage of academics.

Are you looking for a wholesome play with a defined plot? Want an evening of likeable characters? Do you like your theater uninvolved and from afar? If you answered yes to any of these questions then Nightwork is not for you. What you will see is chaos, lots of screaming, and a perceptive outward manifestation of the doubts and fears of a group of people who are spending years of their life on something which, as Blair says, “perhaps 30 people in the world give a sh*t about.” They often break the tedium and formality of their research with a game of “would you rather…?” where one is asked to choose the lesser of two gross and disgusting actions. A serious theme concerning treatment of lab mice and whose methods of extermination is more humane runs through the play and in the final twenty minutes results in child-size mice appearing to discuss some issues with the grad students.    

For the small space that is Manbites Dog Theater, I’m always amazed at the creative ways that they use their venue and Nightwork‘s set design is especially inventive. Seating is around and within the action and, perhaps assuming that many in the audience were grad students themselves, almost makes you part of the play. I was literally touching the actors during several scenes in the kitchen/break room area.     

Jay O’Berski, who also acted in many Manbites Dog attractions, smartly directed a very busy presentation that required a great deal of movement, overlapping dialogue and even a prolonged scene with Katharina in her underwear. Monica Byrne’s text relied a bit too much on the oft-used device of characters becoming the opposite of what they seemed at first, but that can be forgiven when the transformations were so deliciously intriguing. The acting, both individually and as an ensemble, was both focused and loose in roles and scenes which with lesser talents could have quickly degenerated into a formless, ridiculous mess. Nightwork is a stunning example of a brutally honest look at the absurdity of some graduate programs and the effects it can have on people who often follow a path that they are not sure how they got there or where it’s leading.

There is a great deal of coarse language and situations with which some people may feel uncomfortable.

The show continues through February 12. For details, see the sidebar.