Theatergoers were transported to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976 at Monday’s reading of Gene Play. Cast members interspersed in the crowd popped up one by one to deliver comments at a contentious city council meeting.

The acrimonious debate was set off by three seemingly innocuous letters: DNA. More precisely, the recombinant variety — DNA that has been engineered from various sources — was at issue.

The play, written by Jonah Lipsky and Casey Ann Hayward, draws on real-life events that occurred in the summer of 1976 when Harvard researchers requested the renovation of a portion of lab space to bring the rooms up to the P3 level of containment. This is the second highest biosafety designation available, and is intended to contain potentially fatal microbes.

Some university researchers opposed to the plan alerted the city council to it, setting off a heated debate in the academic community and the city.

The playwrights, Jonah Lipsky and Casey Hayward listen to their work. — Ray Ewing

The play touches on the absurd: “No one wants to see monsters crawling out of sewers,” Mayor Vincenti, played by Paul Munafo, said in an early scene. The researchers at Harvard had no such plans. They intended to modify the DNA in the bacterium E. coli.

As the play progresses, these layers of absurdity are peeled back, and deeply-rooted fears are revealed in their place. A central concern regards the acquisition of knowledge and what limits, if any, we should set on this process.

References to the Manhattan Project underscore the dangers of scientific advancement. As Harvard researchers and laypeople alike testify against the renovation, the implication is that some boxes are better left unopened. The labs were eventually built and now science has advanced well beyond the frontiers just being pushed in 1976. But the concerns raised then are applicable today as ever. Act two, which is set in the present day, demonstrates this.

The second act focuses on regulatory and intellectual property battles over a gene editing technology called CRISPR. The issues raised are familiar. Do the risks of pursuing potentially dangerous topics in science and technology outweigh the rewards? What happens when dogma gets in the way of measured debate?

The second act also introduces questions of gender equity and representation in science. Rosalind Franklin even gets a name drop. According to Mr. Lipsky, Dr. Franklin was the original inspiration for their work. After Mr. Lipsky and Ms. Hayward discovered she was already the subject of a play, they turned their attention to CRISPR technology.

“We’re on the cusp of a really serious transformation in science, and then you start to think about this meeting in 1976 where people’s fears and concerns were raised, and the parallels,” he said.

Following Monday’s sold-out reading, the playwrights are excited to get back to work on the script.

“We’re going to go back and we’re going to do some rewrites... and then we’re going to go through a submission process and try to send it out to theatres that are science theatres, and see if we land anything,” Ms. Hayward said.

Mr. Lipsky stressed the timeliness of the play given the current state of affairs in biotechnology and politics.

The work is indeed timely, but, as the play itself suggests, also timeless.