I very much enjoyed the Playwrights Horizons production of “This,” the first play I saw by Melissa James Gibson several years ago, but it’s been downhill since then. The second play I saw, “What Rhymes with America” at the Atlantic, left me cold. Now Gibson has returned to Playwrights Horizons with “Placebo,” which might be subtitled “Four Characters and a Vending Machine in Search of a Play.” Louise (Carrie Coon) is a graduate student in female sexuality, earning money by working with patients enrolled in a double-blind study of an experimental drug to increase female libido. Mary (Florencia Lozano) is one of the patients who is eager to know whether she is receiving the new drug or the placebo. Louise has lived for four years with Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), a 7th year graduate student in Classics who has hit a brick wall in his dissertation on Pliny the Elder. (The fact that Jonathan is played by a black actor seems to be of no significance to the plot, such as it is.) Louise tells her dying mother the white lie that she and Jonathan are getting married soon. Jonathan does not find Louise’s attempts to be supportive helpful. Tom (Alex Hurt), who works for another study at the hospital, becomes friendly with Louise. The game they play with a vending machine is the liveliest scene in the play. The experimental drug study and the placebo abruptly disappear from view and the action shifts to the troubled relationship between Louise and Jonathan. The play ends with a very long, often ludicrous scene of them breaking up — or not. I found the characters little more than collections of tics despite the efforts of an appealing cast to breathe some life into them. The play is not helped by David Zinn’s dreary and confusing set which uses the entire width of the theater to represent both the hospital and Jonathan’s apartment. I’m not sure what more director Daniel Aukin could have done with this material. Gibson seems to appeal to the younger generation; the audience included a group of twenty-somethings who whooped and hollered at every opportunity. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission.
NOTE: Why the sudden spate of one-word play titles beginning with P— Pocatello, Posterity, Placebo, Permission?