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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephen Kunken and Marin Hinkle
Photo by James Leynse.

With the possible exception of exorbitant prices, prescription medication and theatre don't share many salient qualities. But one they do have in common is that everyday examples can run the gamut from true lifesavers to ultra-mild pick-me-ups. Kate Fodor's new play Rx, which just opened at Primary Stages, unquestionably counts as the latter. And those are perfectly okay, provided they don't become too habit-forming.

So, rest easy: There's nothing at all offensive about this diverting comedy concerning the crossroads of meaningless lives and designer pharmaceuticals in contemporary overmedicated America. True, there's nothing in it to challenge you, either, and a running time of 100 minutes is pushing it for something this marshmallow-light to stay afloat. But with enjoyable writing, breezy direction (by Ethan McSweeny), and some well-crafted performances from actors like Marin Hinkle, Stephen Kunken, and Marylouise Burke, most of it is easy to swallow and keep down.

The evening is centered on the solid (and increasingly believable) notion that there is nothing a miracle pill today can't remedy. Meena Pierotti (Hinkle) is counting on that, in fact. The managing editor of piggeries at American Cattle & Swine magazine, she's become so despondent about her work that she has to dash out of her office multiple times per day to sob in the old-women's-underwear section of the nearby big-box department store. So she understandably jumps at the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial of a new medicine called SP-925, which is aimed at easing workplace depression for those in the $60,000-plus income bracket.

Her contact at SP-925's developer, Schmidt Pharma, is a doctor named Phil Gray (Kunken), who in the course of examining her for consideration in the trial and once she's selected to take part, begins developing extra-professional feelings for her. He's particularly intrigued by her history of writing prose poems (she even published a book on them once), and how such a unique interest led her to work at the mundane publication in which she's currently trapped. He even uses the poetry he sees in her soul to revamp his own life, and starts taking steps to give up his own unfulfilling work in favor of helping the needy in Africa.

Is he supposed to be fraternizing with his subjects? Well, no. And shouldn't he worry about what will happen should SP-925 work and Meena become more thrilled with the job that was stifling enough to bring them together in the first place? Uh, probably. The rest of the play explores the consequences of these bad choices, with special focus on whether these sorts of unions are good ideas at all and, in one entertaining twist, whether a literal antidote for heartbreak is better than getting over a failed relationship the old-fashioned way.

Hinkle and Kunken make a delightful onstage couple, in part because their careful carvings of Meena and Phil's idiosyncrasies complement the other's so nicely: Hinkle finds an alluring, needy nerdiness in Meena that's the natural counterpart to Phil's more bookworm-styled caregiver, so together they form a single complete personality. Burke is pointedly amusing yet fetchingly earnest as an older woman Meena meets during one of her off-site crying sessions, finding just the right blend between silly and sweet.

Unfortunately, that balance is off with everyone else. Elizabeth Rich (as Phil's boss, Allison), Michael Bakkensen (as Meena's boss, Simon), and Paul Niebanck (as an SP-925 marketing executive and a dopey drug developer) are much less rooted in reality, and push too hard for the subtle satire Fodor has created. As these characters become increasingly important late in the story, when Meena and Phil's romance starts causing unwanted side-effects for both of them, things start getting less funny and more "funny" (quotation marks and all). And once the grip on the story's emotional anchor is gone, McSweeny never quite gets it back.

But while Rx is about sicknesses of the heart and head that may or may not exist, and cures for them that may or may not be worse than riding them out, it's an enjoyable evening that won't put too much of a strain on your body or your mind. You may occasionally find yourself wishing for something more substantial, but a little detox now and then is a good thing, and Fodor's modern version of it displays enough facility (when McSweeny and company trust it) to be just what the doctor ordered.

Through March 3
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
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