Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Effect **

My hopes were high for this London import that garnered the Critics Circle Award for Best New Play for its 2013 National Theatre production. I much admired playwright Lucy Prebble’s clever Enron and have almost always enjoyed David Cromer’s work as a director (Tribes, Our Town). Furthermore, the topic certainly sounded intriguing — an experimental study on an antidepressant that might act as a love drug. Nevertheless, something seems to have been lost crossing the pond, because I fail to see what the fuss was about. I note that the running time at the National was 45 minutes longer than the version now at Barrow Street Theatre — 2 3/4 hours vs. two hours — so it’s possible they trimmed too much. However, even at its present length, it seemed at times repetitive. We meet two of the experimental subjects, Connie (Susannah Flood), a rather straight-laced psychology student, and Tristan (Carter Hudson), a free-spirited drifter, who are supposed to spend 4 weeks under observation as they take the drug in a double-blind study with a control group on placebos. They are supposed to forgo sex and cellphones. It comes as no surprise that they break both rules and fall in love. The question is whether it is “real” or just the effect of the drug and whether the answer actually matters. We also meet Dr. Toby Sealy (Steve Key), the big pharma honcho who has hired the depressive Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda) to run the study. As it turns out, they have a history. I mostly enjoyed the first act, but was disappointed when the playwright turned to melodrama midway through the second. The play raises many interesting questions such as whether pharmaceutical experiments justify deceit, whether antidepressants are a good or bad thing, and what it is that makes us us, without providing easy answers. Hudson and Brazda are both superb. I found Flood’s alternately nasal and shrill voice hard to listen to. Key seemed to change affect too suddenly. The set design by Marsha Ginsberg is flexible and looks just like a hospital. Sarah Laux’s costumes are unobtrusive. Cromer’s staging leaves some actors awkwardly frozen in position during a rather lengthy scene for others. This play is certainly an improvement over last year’s somewhat similarly themed Placebo at Playwrights Horizons, but that is faint praise. NOTE: Avoid seats in row B; there is no elevation over row A.

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