Manbites Dog Theater
Through Feb. 12

During part of my career as a graduate student at UNC, I had a job providing computer support for a biology lab on campus. As a result, I know a bit more than the average person about Factor IX, a protein whose absence results in human hemophilia. I’m also well aware that playwright Monica Byrne knows whereof she speaks in the vivid character studies informing the offbeat world of Nightwork, a rewarding dark comedy that premiered last week at Manbites Dog Theater.

For if our global ecosystem is a delicate though battered thing, it’s a veritable Rock of Gibraltar when compared with the individual psyches among her group of advanced biology students. With various combinations of dilated ambition, deluded ego and a distinct lack of socialization, no one in this crew strikes us as all that stable in themselves. When you put them close together in a claustrophobic science lab and pressurize the environment with academic deadlines, the potential for … reaction increases considerably.

A certain form of gallows humoras bracing as it is socially incorrectbecomes part of the norm in such circles. But when a guest upsets the fragile balance late one night during the crunch time of the semester, the body count begins.

Actor Annie Zipper nails the melancholy of the geeky Katharina, whose discoveries are about to be undercut by a publication from a rival lab, while Jeffrey Moore is pitch-perfect as the jaded, aggressive Blair. If Joan Jett ever got her science thing going (and flipped her hair color), she’d be Dana Marks’ Bridget, hands down, while Kashif Powell’s imperturbable Gordon seems one part Caribbean zombie, one part Alfred Hitchcock. Into their midst comes Rachel (Alex Young), a perky, caffeinatedand possibly sociopathicgoth with a penchant for mixing hydrofluoric acid with songs from The Little Mermaid.

The only miscalculation in Byrne’s script, or Jay O’Berski’s direction, on opening night came when the pace dragged noticeably during the second half of the show. Even if that’s realistic for the tedium that sets in during such marathon sessions, staging ennui far too easily replicates the condition in the audience. Still, Nightwork recovers from this dip in altitude, ultimately proving that the sleep of reason produces truly weird science.