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Theatre in Review: The Effect (Barrow Street Theatre)

Kati Brazda. Photo: Matthew Murphy

A new antidepressant is subjected to human trials in The Effect, a play that suffers from a few mood swings of its own. The playwright, Lucy Prebble, zooms in on two people who have agreed to spend several weeks in an institution, allowing themselves to be monitored -- both physically and psychologically -- while being given ever-larger doses of a new pill that increases the amount of dopamine in its takers; running a little dramatic experiment of her own, Prebble has them slip into a clandestine affair, an act guaranteed to wreak havoc on the study. It's an unusual, even provocative premise, aimed at an aspect of modern life -- the extreme levels of medication accepted in contemporary society -- that has barely been taken up by contemporary playwrights. Too bad, then, that Prebble distorts her subject matter with so much hokum.

Considering that they take place in a clinic -- Marsha Ginsberg's set is a marvel of hushed, sterile efficiency -- the early scenes of The Effect have a certain eccentric charm. Susannah Flood gives a light screwball spin to her lines as Connie, a college student who, while her older lover is visiting his family, decides to take part in the study. Playing off the neutral-voiced, poker-faced Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda), Connie -- while insisting that all is fine -- more or less admits that she is in a relationship that is sexually stalled and has probably left her at least a tad depressed. Flood has a way of cutting herself off in mid-sentence, then standing there, silent, staring her interrogator in the eye, that reveals more than would whole paragraphs of dialogue. Carter Hudson, one of the more interesting young actors to come our way this season, is equally good as Tristan, a free spirit with a stoner's manner and a garrulous way with everyone who crosses his path. (He admits to taking part in several studies as a way of working up ready cash.) Tristan is also an unregenerate flirt, inappropriately tossing a few compliments in Lorna's direction, a fact that makes Connie jealous, even as she insists she has no interest in him.

Prebble also uses to good effect a couple of psychological tests that reveal much about Connie and Tristan. But The Effect also gets a fair amount of amusement out of the setting in which the two of them get to know each other. They meet while delivering urine samples -- that's one we haven't seen before -- and later they bond over the fact that both bite their nails. In the enforced leisure of the drug trial, they can't help swapping stories: He loves to roam the world, but she lives a buttoned-up domestic existence with her older, divorced boyfriend while applying herself to her studies in, yes, psychology. Still, she has a way of fending off his advances that are really ways of egging him on, and it isn't long before they are breaking all the rules, sneaking off to obscure corners of the institution to have sex.

This is the point where The Effect becomes unmoored from reality. Connie and Tristan's affair -- which Lorna quickly discovers -- would surely disqualify their participation in the study: Not only has their emotional involvement introduced a wild card development that fatally compromises their data, they remove the monitoring devices on their bodies for hours at a time, the easier to go at it, leaving Lorna with almost no data to evaluate. Lorna is furious over their behavior but does little about it except to urge them to behave. Even worse, Connie, who is terrified that Tristan's exhilarated love for her is merely a byproduct of the drug, begs Lorna to tell her if Tristan is getting the drug or the placebo, and Lorna complies.

We are now firmly in the land of science fiction: Double-blind drug studies are set up so that the doctor doesn't know which subjects are getting the drug or a placebo. In real life, questions of ethics aside, Lorna wouldn't be able to answer Connie's question because she would have no idea. Prebble compounds her errors by introducing a twist in which Toby, who is in charge of the study -- and who, by the way, is Lorna's ex-lover, for whom she still quietly pines -- further deceives Lorna about what is going on. The author has some mordant points to make, but she undercuts them by making her characters behave like refugees from a sweeps-week episode of General Hospital. The general ignorance among the characters about the distribution of the drug is exploited in a melodramatic climax in which one of them, in the name of love, is given an overdose, with terrible repercussions.

The director, David Cromer, handles the actors as well as can be expected under these increasingly unconvincing circumstances. Flood and Hudson share a strong chemistry and one of the show's main points of interest involves watching the up-and-down flow of their affair. Brazda is strong in the early scenes, and she makes a spirited sparring partner for Toby. ("I swear, Toby, we're going to look back at this chemical imbalance shit like it's the four humors all over again.") But her character in the later scenes is rendered drearily as a spurned lover with depression issues of her own; her real problem is that Prebble patronizes her with such physician-heal-thyself clich├ęs. Steve Key effortlessly blends charm and selfishness as Toby, who never met a study, or a woman, he couldn't exploit.

Aside from Ginsberg's set, which makes use of a sliding wall to easily shift locations, and which also features an enormous mural depicting a forest in autumn, Tyler Micoleau's lighting is distinguished by certain scenes being played either in near-darkness or without face light; I have a feeling that he was merely doing his director's bidding, but these scenes have a distancing effect that is not helpful. (I found these scenes to be a challenge to my concentration.) Sarah Laux's costumes, Erik T. Lawson's sound, and Maya Ciarrocchi's projections are all solid.

Prebble did something similar with her last play, Enron, taking ripped-from-the-headlines material and manipulating it awkwardly. And, once again, she undercuts her argument by introducing all sorts of distracting and unbelievable plot twists. She is a writer with talent; she should learn to get out of her own way. -- David Barbour

(31 March 2016)

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