Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Adverse Effects
Tesseract Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's recent review of Buyer & Cellar


Julianne King and Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
A brand new play takes a David and Goliath approach to the problem of Big Pharma: a father who's lost his teenaged daughter, and a crusading young reporter who's tired of the high school sports beat, each setting their sights on the shady world of paid research into lifestyle drugs. The end results are harrowing, stylish, and even funny. And a fine twist ending leaves us saying, "I should have seen that coming!"

Taylor Gruenloh wrote this conspiracy tale, and director Brittanie Gunn has found an exceptional cast to bring it to life in the spanking new .ZACK arts incubator, about four blocks east of the Fox Theatre on Locust Avenue. But the firm, topical outlines of the play are nothing compared to the invisible, thematic framework that gradually rises around us as the story proceeds.

Mysterious "marketing costs" are always sky high in new drug development, but here those costs go straight into the pocket of an earnest researcher, Richard (played by Phil Leveling), who's part of a team that's developing Nyacill, billed as a chemical formula to fight psychopathy in teenagers. Later, of course, questions will arise about the quality and source of some of the research. But this apparent case of bribery is made palatable coming from a beautiful drug rep, Alyssa (Julianne King).

The ultimate target audience for Nyacill actually seems to be the parents of hard-to-control adolescents. And hundreds of thousands of dollars changes hands during the play, between researcher and marketer, in unmarked envelopes, in a Midwestern roadside motel the two characters share on regular occasions.

Playwright Gruenloh raises the tension, making Richard's otherwise enlightened brother-in-law a fierce opponent of another ultra-modern drug for teens (an allergy medicine, Trimillen, which may have unexpected side effects). That brother-in-law, Phil (Carl Overly, Jr.), is still trying to get some kind of a confession out of the drug's maker, after his daughter may have killed herself while taking Trimillen. And Phil's struggle is tearing his family apart.

Parenthetically, there's a wonderfully creepy sub-theme going on here, involving drug names—and corporate names, too—that seem entirely made-up, of just the right mixture of sighing vowels and consonants: as if all our modern wonder drugs, and the bliss they promise, and even the manufacturers themselves, may only exist in an imaginary space somewhere between the futurism of "Star Trek" and Peter Pan's magical "clapping for Tinkerbell."

But let's detour back and talk about the woman caught between the brothers-in-law (the earnest researcher and the dad who lost his daughter): Musa Gurnis plays Jessica, the wife and sister, and possibly the most important survivor in the story: As a performer, Ms. Gurnis is astonishingly naturalistic, and almost impossibly genuine, as Jessica tries to keep her marriage to Phil alive as he grieves and fights on, even as her brother tries to help keep her afloat with some of the "research" money he's getting on the sly.

It may be that Jessica, and Ms. Gurnis' performance, hold the entire play together, partly because Jessica unites the two different storylines, but even more so because of the incomparable realism the actress brings to her role. Even though Mr. Overly and Mr. Leveling are both among the most successful and likable of local actors, Ms. Gurnis is simply on a plateau of believability all her own.

Maurice Walters II plays Maurice, a sports writer for a micro-local online news site in this same Midwestern town, rounding out the brave little "Davids" of Adverse Effects. He is dashing and admirably persevering, once the conspiracy crystallizes in his own mind (thanks to Phil's exhaustive efforts on behalf of his late daughter). And Don McClendon displays outstanding down-to-earth humor and authenticity as Maurice's playfully grizzled editor, Ed.

Taleesha Caturah as Kim represents the "Goliath" here, as the head of RexSci, the drug marketing firm. She takes on an older sister role in upbraiding Alyssa (the drug rep) when the latter questions the true nature of the research being done on that anti-psychopathy drug. (Older audience members will get a nervous smile out of the use of the "Goldfinger Exemption," in which Kim cites highway deaths as a greater menace to teenagers than any new wonder drug her company might put on the market.)

But above all, there is a vast moral gulf between "adverse conditions" and "adverse effects" in the play. That kind of wordplay is designed to exonerate the drug industry with a legal dictionary's worth of smirking rhetoric. And that confabulating gulf between cause and effect creates a similar, invisible distance between the brothers-in-law, leaving the woman in the middle in torment.

The first half of Adverse Effects is somewhat reminiscent of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. But later in the play the brothers-in-law seem to stand glaring at each other from the twin peaks of their own idealism. Down between them lies a vast gulf, crowded with a drug marketer's potential customer base/victims—in an "uncanny valley" of imaginary, perfect teenagers and their equally imaginary perfect parents.

You'll see them on TV soon: smiling contentedly in some expensive-looking commercial. They'll be smiling because of brave new drugs like Nyacill and Trimillen—but only if all the right people can be paid off first, and the occasional "adverse effects" can be hushed up.

Also a great excuse to see the sleek lobby and lovely, contemporary/funky/urban stage of our newest theater, and a swanky little café area too, thanks to the indispensable artistic vision of the Kranzberg family.

Through December 11, 2016, at the .ZACK arts incubator, at 3224 Locust Ave. For more information visit www.tesseracttheatre.org.

The Players
Kim: Taleesha Caturah
Jessica: Musa Gurnis
Alyssa: Julianne King
Richard: Phil Leveling
Ed: Don McClendon
Phil: Carl Overly, Jr.
Maurice: Maurice Walters II

The Production Team
Director: Brittanie Gunn
Assistant Director: Katie Palazzola
Technical Director: Jackie Chambers
Sound Board Operator: Krystal Sutton
Light Board Operator: Sarah Joan Clark
Mural: Katie Palazzola


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