Once upon a time, doctors used to bleed their patients in an effort to rectify an imbalance in the body's four basic substances (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood). Today, doctors regularly prescribe psychoactive pharmaceuticals to alter the body's production of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Surely, with all our scientific knowledge and medical advances, the latter is a much safer and more effective treatment, right? Lucy Prebble scrutinizes such hubris in The Effect, her searing new drama at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda) is a psychiatrist conducting a clinical trial on a new anti-depressant. Under the supervision of her colleague, Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key), she administers the drug to Connie (Susannah Flood) and Tristan (Carter Hudson), test subjects who have agreed to be monitored around the clock for four weeks while living within a research facility. Naturally, the cabin fever gets the best of them and they embark on a passionate love affair, but neither of them can be sure it's not just the meds talking. Connie thinks that means their love doesn't really count, but Tristan cannot see why it matters: "I'm sure there's a rush of something chemical if you meet on vacation or…on a bus with a bomb on it," he asserts, "doesn't mean Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock aren't really in love."
Certainly the sweaty, earthy chemistry between Connie and Tristan feels authentic. Flood and Hudson look and feel like a real couple in the throes of infatuation: She is standoffish and more than a little tense, but he is irresistible with his scruffy smile and puppy-dog eyes. The charming and dangerous Hudson shakes with adrenaline as they fight and make love. Flood is equally invested in her character's dual impulses to repel him and give in. Their explosive moments are built on a solid foundation of furtive glances and flirtatious banter.
This makes Brazda's committed portrayal of the habitually anxious Dr. James all the more credible. She sees the thousand ways her subjects are compromising her study, leading her to behave like a middle school vice principal that has just stumbled on an informal smoking den under the bleachers. When Dr. James accuses them of jeopardizing her research, Connie strikes back, reminding her that these are the side effects she expected.
Prebble's script is full of memorable moments and characters that stab at the heart of western society's troubling relationship with prescription drugs. Although he's playing a doctor, Key could just as easily be playing the proprietor of a get-rich-quick scheme with his frighteningly charismatic performance. This brutal takedown of medicine in a capitalist context is as potent as we would expect from Prebble, the author of the spectacular energy-industry pageant Enron.
David Cromer (who helmed the award-winning New York debut of Tribes at Barrow Street) directs The Effect with clinical precision yet somehow manages to avoid the sterility that tack often entails. An early scene depicting both Connie and Tristan giving blood (she covers her eyes; he can't look away) reveals just how different these two characters behave within this highly controlled world.
The acting is satisfyingly unsafe, even when performed on the hospital green floors of Marsha Ginsberg's sleek yet surprisingly versatile set. With the aid of a moving wall and Tyler Micoleau's gutsy lighting design, new playing spaces emerge out of thin air. Micoleau boldly casts several scenes in near obscurity, allowing our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Blessedly, he allows us to reacclimatize to the light, unlike so many sadistic lighting designers who opt for jarringly quick, eye-scorching transitions. Costume designer Sarah Laux outfits Connie and Tristan in matching grey sweat suits, but even the way they wear them makes them look like very different garments, hinting at the absurdity of this whole situation.
So much of this play is about human resistance to uniformity and the scientific method itself: How can one person truly serve as a control for another when the two subjects have radically different backgrounds, attitudes, and chemical predispositions? Brimming with challenging insight, The Effect is sure to cause some heated post-show discussions, especially in our hypermedicated age. Be prepared: Xanax and ibuprofen are not included with the price of admission.