'Placebo': Theater Review

Placebo Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

Placebo Still - H 2015

Only minimally stimulating.

Carrie Coon of 'Gone Girl' and 'The Leftovers' stars as a grad student working on a double-blind study of a female arousal drug in Melissa James Gibson's new play.

A doctoral candidate's involvement in a double-blind study for an experimental drug designed to awaken the dormant female libido becomes a mirror for the shortcomings of her own relationship in Placebo. Or at least that's what Melissa James Gibson's elusive play about desire, intimacy and the challenges of sustaining emotional and sexual connections seems to be getting at. The overlap between the protagonist's work and home life is writ large in the design of Daniel Aukin's nicely acted production, with a fine cast of four led by emerging talent Carrie Coon. But the two worlds are never satisfyingly braided together in the playwright's unresolved text.

A writer on FX's The Americans, and on season three of Netflix's House of Cards, Gibson has earned a reputation as a gifted observer of the minefields of contemporary life in verbally sharp and behaviorally insightful plays like [sic] and This. Placebo has its share of relatable moments and offbeat humor, but it's a less fully realized work.

Louise (Coon) is a Ph.D. student researching female sexual fantasy and working on lab trials for a drug called Resurgo. Unlike its male counterparts such as Viagra, which deal with mechanics, Resurgo aims to get inside a woman's mind to address her diminished carnal appetites. Scenes with Mary (Florencia Lozano, terrific), a married patient in her 40s who is participating in the clinical study, are both amusing and poignant in showing the anxieties of a woman whose psychological desire for sex doesn't correspond to her absent physical urges. Her frustration is compounded by not knowing whether she's receiving the actual drug or the placebo.

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At home, Louise does her best to be supportive and keep communication channels open with her withdrawn partner of four years, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), a depressed academic struggling to give up smoking and finish his dissertation on Pliny the Elder. But the relationship is as low on juice as Mary's sex drive.

While the play makes no comment on the fact that Louise is white and Jonathan's black, the casting may be intended to take the inherent distance of their science-humanities divide one step further. The problem is that while Harper is a strong actor, Jonathan is a whiny downer, so it's hard to care too deeply when he asks Louise to move out temporarily to improve his focus.

Much more interesting is Louise's flirtation at the lab with Tom (Alex Hurt), a fellow researcher working on a different study of aural stimulation. If Jonathan is a bundle of crises, Tom is droll and direct, seemingly immune to drama and self-doubt, if not to being hurt.

It's difficult to imagine anyone in the audience not thinking Louise should just move on from the angst-ridden classicist, who seems less fun than the lab rats she's been pleasuring with a feather, let alone the wryly humorous Tom. But the playwright instead subjects Louise to a long, at times awkward scene during which she reluctantly dismantles the relationship, perhaps definitively. There's a suggestion in the closing moments that Jonathan might also have a spark of playful compatibility that Louise just needs to find. But the relevance of the double-blind study by that point has been lost.

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Designer David Zinn's drab set blends elements of the lab with the apartment that Louise and Jonathan share within a single, wide space, and Gibson's regular collaborator Aukin keeps the work/home action distinct. But despite the foundations of a schematic — even scientific — structure, Gibson hasn't fully figured out what she wants the professional and personal spheres to say about each other. Or at least she hasn't managed to convey it. The underdeveloped work sniffs around interesting ideas about female sexuality, monogamy, about the attraction of similar types versus opposites, the uses of deception and the ebb and flow of desire. But it ultimately just becomes another relationship play that doesn't add up to much.

What keeps it moderately absorbing is the cast, all of them giving ultra-naturalistic performances that make the characters vivid even when the writing isn't. Lozano and Harper both have moments of pathos, and Hurt (son of William Hurt) finds easy, unforced notes of comedy in his role, as well as a hint of something unpredictable in Tom's attraction to Louise. Coon, onstage throughout, confirms the emotional authenticity she showed in the 2012 Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as well as the compelling intensity of her roles in Gone Girl and HBO's The Leftovers.

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Carrie Coon, William Jackson Harper, Alex Hurt, Florencia Lozano
Director: Daniel Aukin
Playwright: Melissa James Gibson
Set and costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Presented by Playwrights Horizons