Is falling in love just a chemical response that you can recreate in the laboratory?
That’s one of the fascinating questions addressed in The Effect, a play about two volunteers in a clinical trial who fall for one another – or do they?
The researchers in Lucy Prebble’s play, which has opened at the Barrow Street Theater directed by David Cromer, are not intentionally testing love. They are injecting the healthy volunteers with an experimental anti-depressant drug to determine if it has any side effects. Is one of the side effects a physiological response that convinces them that they are in love with one another?
“The Effect” has a solid plot; seeds planted early sprout a few surprises. The mildest of these is that Connie (Susannah Flood), a reserved psychology student, and Tristan (stand-out Carter Hudson), a free spirit, are not the only ones affected by the trial. It turns out that the researchers – Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda) and the head of the pharmaceutical research laboratory Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key) – have a past emotional relationship, which isn’t really past.
Prebbles in effect walks us through the stages of falling in love, capturing the exasperation of relationships with poignancy and wit: “I can’t bear it when you’re sad in case I caused it,” Connie says to Tristan. “And I can’t bear it when you’re happy in case I didn’t.”
Worked into the play are some knocks on the medical and pharmaceutical industries. “The history of medicine is just the history of placebo,” Dr. James says at one point, “because we know now almost none of it worked.”
The plot and the deceptively straightforward, largely restrained performances (a Cromer hallmark) seem mostly in service to a series of intriguing questions threaded throughout the two-hour play, sometimes dramatically, sometimes in the form of debate:
Do any antidepressants work over the long term?
Are people prone to depression more likely to attribute their successes to external causes and their failures to internal ones?
What are the ethical boundaries when testing human beings?
Why are we happy to have heart transplants and liver transplants, but we
can’t imagine a brain transplant? Is the brain the center of what makes us individuals?
Are human beings more than the sum of their chemistry?
Do cell phones really interfere with the equipment on airplanes and in hospitals, or do they just say that to get us to turn them off? (And – not a question asked in the play – would that work in the theater?)
Unlike, say, Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling books based on social science research, the playwright does not offer pat, authoritative-sounding theories to answer these questions. But the warmth, pathos and humor in her writing suggests where she stands.
Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged
Barrow Street Theater
By Lucy Prebble
Directed by David Cromer
Set design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Erik T. Lawson, original composition by Daniel Kluger, projection design by Maya Ciarrochhi, fight direction by J. David Brimmer.
Cast: Kati Brazda as Dr. Lorna James, George Demas as lab technician, Susannah Flood as Connie Hall, Carter Hudson as Tristan Frey, and Steve Key as Dr. Toby Sealey.
Running time: Two hours including intermission.
Tickets: $49.50 – $99.50
The Effect is scheduled to run through June 19, 2016
Update: The Effect has been extended through September 4, 2016.