It was recently announced that the limited New York run of Lucy Prebble‘s “new” play, The Effect, has been extended all the way through September 4. Furthermore, discount tickets are available online. Lucky audiences! … and a great motivation for me to chat about it. It is one of seven plays I experienced on a recent theatre binge. It was a favorite for provoking some deep questions about who and where I am, and how I could know that, as well as for providing ample laughter to make the answers palatable.
Or in this case, I should say the struggle for answers. This play is more about the questions … like “Can you tell the difference between who you are, and a side effect?”
Ms. Prebble is a British playwright, heretofore primarily known for her more abstract play, Enron, about the scandal and collapse of the big American energy corporation. It enjoyed great commercial success a few years ago on both sides of the pond, despite a tepid N. Y. Times review at the time. Critics now agree that Prebble, at only 35 years old, is one to watch.
And now comes her The Effect, co-produced by London’s National Theatre, where it successfully played in their little Cottesloe Theatre in 2008, and earned a “Best New Play” from the UK’s Critics Circle. To make it even more enticing to an out-of-towner with a theater habit like myself, it was in the Barrow Street Theatre, down in the West Village. Over the years it has become my favorite 199-seat off-Broadway house, where prices are but a tiny fraction of a Broadway hit like Hamilton – a major consideration when embarked on a binge.
Furthermore, it was directed by one of my favorite directors, David Cromer. A few years back, in this same theater, Cromer had both directed and played the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, after which I vowed to seize every opportunity to see his work. He followed that up with an extraordinary production of Nina Raine’s Tribes (See my entry of 22 Jan 2013). I wasn’t about to miss this one, and instincts paid off!
The Effect is about a medical research experiment, a clinical trial to determine the emotional effect of a new anti-depressant drug on two young volunteers, Connie and Tristan. They are asked to refrain from any activity that would “normally” excite an emotional response (like sex, for instance). But human chemistry being what it is, the warning goes unheeded. Or maybe that’s not the case at all: Maybe their behavior or attraction to each other is the result of the drug taking effect? And of course, since it’s a double-blind trial, the subjects have no idea whether they’re getting the real drug or a placebo.
The immediate question stems from the premise of the blind trial, a tool that many researchers won’t indulge in any more because of ethical considerations. If it’s a life-saving drug being tested, for instance, how can one patient be given the possibility to survive while the other will be knowingly denied the drug and allowed to die? And who gets to decide that?
It seems a simple little paradox, but from there, the play brings up bigger and way more complex questions: What is human? What is identity? How does the brain work? What is love? Can human emotions be quantified, treated? Can what we feel be real? What’s more “real”: my view of the world when I’m “lucid,” or my view of the world when I’m under the influence of alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, or a drug? Can medical science be developed to “fix” us? Can a placebo be as effective as a drug? Just how does a “state of mind” differ from the “chemistry of the brain,” if at all?
But all that’s just the beginning. The Effect is also an intriguing personal drama, and a hilarious comedy about two very likable people, their joys and their “love,” and their confusion and pain. Inevitably, The Effect is also a love story. Or is it? Do Connie and Tristan really fall in love, or is it just the sex? Or is it only the effect of the drug, if indeed they received the drug and not the placebo.
Clearly the experiment will not have the indented results, nor will the play pretend to answer all the concerns it raises. The young couple’s story is reflected in the two more mature doctors who are conducting this “objective” trial, who have their own issues with relationships and depression. And that raises the stakes even more in the second act.
Significantly, the four outstanding actors (Susannah Flood, Carter Hudson, Kati Brazda and Steve Key) turned in the most honestly revealing and convincing performances of all in this spring’s seven-play-in-four-night binge. They were terrific, and they had tough competition.