"I'm cloned and I'm Canadian?" appalled 18-year-old Denise asks early on in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson's "By and By" at Shotgun Players.
Her exclamation provokes audience giggles in this short (70-minute), slightly futuristic drama about a girl who suddenly and inadvertently discovers she's not who, or even what, she thought she was — and that she herself has become the sought-after subject of an urgent scientific research project.
Despite a few such humorous touches, local playwright Gunderson's subject is serious. It's about the ways in which loss can misguide us and love can redeem us, set in a world in which human cloning has become a commercial enterprise.
It's also an offbeat coming-of-age story and a coming-to-terms-with-reality story for Denise's troubled scientist father, Steven (Michael Patrick Gaffney).
Denise responds to the life-changing news by running away from home on a quest to find out more about her true origins. Dad follows in hot pursuit. It's a frantic chase for both of them, with other scientists hot on Denise's trail as well.
Intermittently, a pair of solemn scientists (Bari Robinson and Lynne Hollander, who also play other small roles) offer short informational lectures.
There's the kernel of a fascinating, and creepy, story here about how love for a spouse and for a child can become intertwined, distorted and confused.
But that's not exactly the direction Gunderson's headed. Instead, along with her meditation on the nature of love, she's placing a certain amount of emphasis on cloning as a scientific and social issue.
Intriguing as her themes are, they never quite reach fruition. Discussions are repetitive and not deep enough to plumb the characters' most hidden feelings in a believably organic way.
And Denise and Dad's "A-ha!" moments at the end don't feel fully earned. The series of events that transpire, as the two main characters take their separate journeys, are fairly thin. Gunderson's episodic structure might work better in a longer play.
The cast, directed by Mina Morita, is uneven, with Jennifer Le Blanc a standout as Denise and in one other key role.
Two previous (and excellent) Gunderson plays, "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" and "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight," both of which premiered locally, are more fully realized than "By and By." Clearly, the prolific playwright is bound to produce many fine plays in the future.
REVIEWBy and By
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes June 23
Tickets: $20 to $30
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org