'The Effect': Theater Review

The Effect -BARROW STREET THEATRE - 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
A play of provocative ideas that never come to dramatic life.

Directed by David Cromer, this U.S. premiere by 'Enron' playwright Lucy Prebble follows two volunteers in a clinical antidepressant drug trial who fall in love.

Provocative themes don't always make for compelling drama. Case in point: Lucy Prebble's play now receiving its U.S. premiere after debuting to raves at London's National Theatre in 2012. Depicting the unforeseen results of a clinical drug trial in which two twentysomethings are given a new, experimental antidepressant, The Effect is never as convincing as the intellectual arguments in which its characters frequently engage.

Set in a posh private medical facility — Marsha Ginsberg's set design is appropriately antiseptic — the play introduces us to two of the trial subjects, Connie (Susannah Flood) and Tristan (Carter Hudson), who "meet cute" when they run into each other while holding urine samples. Both have qualified for the fee-paying experiment, which involves their staying at the clinic for four weeks under observation; the freewheeling Tristan plans to use his earnings to embark on a backpacking expedition.

The trial is led by the officious Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda), who advises the two about its many rules, including relinquishing all electronic devices. Physical contact is also strictly forbidden. But it isn't long before Connie, currently involved in a relationship with an older man, and the flirtatious Tristan are engaged in a torrid affair.

It soon becomes evident that Dr. James has reservations about the experiment she's overseeing, which she expresses to her boss and fellow psychiatrist Dr. Sealey (Steve Key), with whom she has a personal history. He, on the other hand, passionately espouses the idea that depression is merely a chemical imbalance that can be safely and efficiently treated with the right medication. Giving a speech at an industry convention hosted by the pharmaceutical company for which he works, he proclaims, "The psycho-pharmacological is the defining event in medicine in my lifetime!"

In their heated exchange, Lorna makes the case that depression is a symptom, not a disease.

"You know us so-called "depressed people" have a more accurate view of the world, a more realistic view of themselves and others," she argues.

It's a compelling debate, to be sure. But like many of the drama's issues — such as whether the sudden infatuation between Connie and Tristan is caused by the medication they may or not be taking, and if drug-induced romance is really different from falling in love, with its attendant rush of chemicals — the playwright spoon-feeds them far too blatantly. It's a problem that was also evident in her previous, equally schematic effort, Enron, which crashed and burned when it was produced on Broadway in 2010 following a hit London run.

The new play also suffers from lack of specificity — the characterizations of the protagonists are sketchy at best — and melodramatic plot developments that don't feel fully credible.

Despite being cut by more than a half-hour in its transfer across the pond, the play lacks narrative momentum and often feels repetitive. This is never more the case than with a scene involving one of the characters suffering from amnesia, which goes on long enough to make you envy the condition.

The staging by David Cromer (who has had hits with Our Town and Tribes at this same off-Broadway venue) is mostly straightforward, save for an intimate sex scene between the naked young principals, seen via a close-up video projection. Whether the intent was to implicate the audience in their possibly being spied on by the trial's supervising doctors or merely to add to the titillation value, it jarringly contrasts with the otherwise realistic proceedings. (Indeed, the squeamish may want to avert their eyes during a blood-drawing scene.)

The performances are fine, but it's Brazda who makes the strongest impression as the doctor who increasingly comes to regret her role in the drug trial. When she finally succumbs to the very condition for which she's been attempting to find a cure, it's a vivid reminder of the deadly serious issues The Effect never manages successfully to address.

Venue: Barrow Street Theatre, New York
Cast: Kati Brazda, George Demas, Susannah Flood, Carter Hudson, Steve Key
Playwright: Lucy Prebble
Director: David Cromer
Set designer: Marsha Ginsberg
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Tyler Miccoleau
Music: Daniel Kluger
Sound designer: Erik T. Lawon
Projection designer: Mayua Ciarrocchi
Presented by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, Tim Levy for NT America, Patrick Daly, Marc & Lisa Biales, Burnt Umber Productions, Scott M.Delman, Dominion Pictures, Dede Harris, JFL Theatricals, Roger E. Kass, Sheila Nevins, Catherine Schreiber