New York City Theater
Barrow Street Theater
The medical facility setting is sterile, but its participants sure aren’t. “The Effect,” Lucy Prebble’s energetic, sensuous, thoughtful play, poses provocative questions and offers no easy answers. In our era of available drugs – from painkillers to the hard stuff – what effect do all these opioids have not only on physical but emotional selves?
Connie and Tristan have volunteered, and are being paid, for an experiment. What happens to the brain when triggered by drugs, specifically a new anti-depressant, RLU37? As control, not only is one of the human guinea pigs being given a placebo, but the psychiatrist administering the tests is kept in the dark about who that is: Connie or Tristan? Both? Neither?
As the dosages increase in milligrams, so do the reactions. Connie and Tristan fall in love, despite the doctors’ admonition they must remain apart. They have sex, they cheat on the test, they completely throw off theories, leading to unexpected reactions and confusions. Adding complications, the psychiatrist herself has had an affair with the doctor in charge. Can any of them help their reactions?
Prebble couches her inquiries in real people, with real shortcomings, as in a scene that takes place in an abandoned asylum. Here protagonists Connie and Tristan have a rendezvous forbidden by the doctors who are monitoring their reactions.
What they find is a huge mural, a landscape filled with trees. But wait! Aren’t those people, however tiny, in the painting? Yes, they are, reminding us that, for all our science, for all our criticism, for all our education, everything’s centered in human beings.
What’s the difference between being depressed and sad? Why do some ascribe success to external factors, failures to themselves? Do people act as they do because of the drug or in spite of it? Is the brain wired a certain way or becomes such? Is it individual luck that we behave thusly or as a result of interaction with the world?
Prebble wrote “Enron,” which flopped on Broadway despite success in the West End. Compared with that work, “The Effect,” also a London hit, is more straightforward, less arcane, more filled with feeling. David Cromer, whose productions of “Tribes” and “Our Town” at this same theater were revelations, ferrets out inner motivations that lay in the deepest, most unknowable parts of the brain.
As Connie, Susannah Flood movingly traces her character from acquiescence to rebellion to awareness to action, from indifference to caring and desire. As Tristan, Carter Hudson is scruffy and abrasive, a barely likable character whose aggressiveness is reduced to helplessness.
As one of the scientists, Dr. Toby Sealey, Steve Key is smug and secretive. As Dr. Lorna James, Kati Brazda superbly, incrementally progresses from the austere, self-assured clinician to the doubting, abandoned woman whose scientific certitude is tested and found wanting.
On Marsha Ginsberg’s purposely cold set, lit mercilessly by Tyler Micoleau, these characters refuse to be puppets. It cost them, but they resist being stuffed into boxes. What are we, after all, but human beings, with brains and emotions? The questions are profound; the play is fascinating.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 6, 2016