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The Effect

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson
Photo by Matthew Murphy

If you've ever longed for an honest-to-goodness love potion to salve your romantic woes—and haven't most of us at one time or another?—The Effect is the cold splash of reality that should bring you permanently back to Earth. Lucy Prebble's intricate and fascinating play at the Barrow Street Theatre posits what happens when just such a drug is unleashed on some ostensibly willing recipients, and everyone involved becomes unable to tell whether or not their yearnings are genuine or pharmaceutical. And, wouldn't you know it, it turns out that where emotions come from is at least as important as what they are.

Prebble, who also penned the backward-looking almost-a-musical Enron (which played on Broadway for two weeks back in 2010), and director David Cromer (the spectacular 2009 revival of Our Town) have squeezed no shortage of juice from this premise, and serve it up in a zesty and nutritious, but still eye-popping, manner that respects both halves of its provenance. Though you might expect that the play, which is set during a four-week clinical trial at a hospital, would be sterile, that's not at all the case. And though concerns of love are rarely far from its four characters' lips, a cool, unblinking gaze ensures that, as a study of the people behind them, it does not lose its objectivity. The result is a play that thinks and feels like no other I can remember from recent seasons: unapologetically intellectual, but always more relatable and visceral than abstruse.

Not that it seems that way initially. The opening scene, set on the first day of the trial, lulls you into a false sense of comfort by reinforcing every procedural stereotype. We first meet our two participants, Connie Hall (Susannah Flood) and Tristan Frey (Carter Hudson), when they're answering background questions from the presiding psychiatrist, Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda): "Have you ever suffered from depression?" "What contraception are you using?" "Do you smoke?" "Have you taken drugs, medicinal or... otherwise in the last six to eight weeks?" And the two twentysomethings' answers reveal their basic attitudes and senses of humor. Connie is nervous and in an apparently sexless relationship; Tristan is crass, course, an expert (he's done these studies a "couple of times," he says), and ostensibly immune to surprise. They meet and bond lightly over the urine samples they're required to provide before their month-long trek can begin ("Why you holding it like that, it was part of you a second ago...?).

From there things proceed methodically, even robotically. They must take their first doses of the drug (25mg) at the same time, eat the same things, obey the same schedule. But they're allowed to talk, and their gentle killing-time flirtation uncovers more than a surface-level connection (they share the same birthday and do not have fulfilling personal lives) even as it observes key, apparently insurmountable differences (he believes in God, she's more "rational"; he's happy to break or at least bend the rules, she's much more by-the-book).

Kati Brazda and Steve Key
Photo by Matthew Murphy

As their dosages keep notching upward—to 50mg, then to 100mg—their budding friendship blooms and explodes, leading them to experience in perilously short order all the heady rushes, untethered eroticism, and raging jealousy that serious relationships elicit, all without either knowing if any of it is real. (The question of whether a placebo is being used—and, if so, on which one of them—becomes a major hurdle to overcome.) Dr. James knows, of course, but she's embroiled in difficulties of her own with the head of the trial, Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key), with whom she's had previous intimate dealings, and before long it becomes unsettlingly clear that Connie and Tristan aren't the only ones being closely examined.

Interlocking the scientific and romantic parts of the plot couldn't have been easy, but Prebble sure makes it seem that way: Each scene of one type between Tristan and Connie informs the others, to the point that, by the depths of the second act, you, like the characters, are no longer able to categorically discern which is which. And the writing, though unyieldingly smart, is never unapproachable; the various tests to which Tristan and Connie are subjected, their outcomes, and what it all means (if anything) in medical terms are clearly explained and tied back to the underlying drama. The people are what matter here, and Prebble does not let her lens stray from them.

Nor does Cromer, whose dazzling staging effectively corrals sweeping ideas and microscopic moments of personality alike, with the help of the ever-moving walls of Marsha Ginsberg's hospital set (which has been lighted, with piercing, institutional precision by Tyler Micoleau) and Maya Ciarrocchi's projections. In a simple scene in which Tristan and Connie try to name colors digs so far into their psyches, for example, you'll think they're both your lifelong friends before they reach the final challenge; and the duo's penultimate encounter has been directed at once aggressively and vaguely, so that you are every bit as disoriented as they need to be. Cromer knows how to yank you into plays, even against your will, and that gift is in full force here.

It wouldn't matter if the acting weren't convincing, but it is. Hudson and Flood are inseparable partners here, and both expertly convey their characters' gradual emotional erosion; a scene in which Tristan and Connie steal away to an abandoned rec room and chart out their future together is a tour de force of subtext that supercharges the mysteries on which the script is built. By the time the couple's lives are severely tested in Act II, the performers have brought their passions to the frenzied pitch Prebble requires. Considerably more subtlety is demanded of Brazda, but she's up for the challenge, and she maps out a longer-range, but equally compelling, trajectory for a woman who's destined to start higher and end lower, and you end up caring no less about her.

Key, alas, is much less convincing as Toby, though it's not entirely his fault. Whereas Brazda balances Lorna's past and future on a shaky foundation that she's then able to upset in any direction as required, Key's more rigid portrayal leaves him little room for injecting, or even suggesting, the nuance of motive that might make Toby interesting. He could do more, but this is the one place where Prebble really stumbles: She hasn't integrated Toby into the action that well, forcing him to be more a foil for Lorna than a fully fleshed-out human being, and the justifications Prebble provides for why he acts the way he does are pretty rocky. (Let's say that professional detachment is not one of his strong points.) Like everything else here, it eventually cascades out of control and leads to a resolution for that half of the story that's iffy at best.

It's a bit of a downer, but not enough to squelch the effect of The Effect. As with any long-term relationship, it establishes itself and grows over time, and doesn't fall prey to a single misstep or failure. Maybe science can't create love (and maybe that's good). But, properly applied, it can create engrossing, enveloping theatre, as this experiment of Prebble's so solidly proves.

The Effect
Through June 19
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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