In British playwright Lucy Prebble's play The Effect, now receiving its regional premiere at Studio Theatre, a young man meets a young woman and they are immediately intrigued by one another. Yet this is no ordinary boy-meets-girl story. Instead, the two meet in a medical research center where they have been given a new antidepressant drug and are signed up for a four-week trial to check its effectiveness.
At first the boy, Tristan, and the girl, Connie, seem to experience the same results from the drug, which enhances the brain's dopamine level. They simply seem to appeal to one another, but as the doses of their medication increase, so do their feelings. When they are together, they feel giddy, they have sweaty palms, and their pulses increase. In short, they have all the symptoms of being infatuated.
The doctor who entered them into the trial, Dr. Lorna James, tries to separate them, reminding them that they signed a document swearing they would not have personal relationships with other participants. But Connie and Tristan continue to throw caution to the wind, sneaking off to unsanctioned places, kissing, and finally making passionate love.
But their love has to battle against the presence of Dr. Toby Sealey, a manager of the company running the trial. It is he who will ultimately decide whether one or another of them should stay or be released from participating in the trial.
One major reason that the play is so successful is that Katie Kleiger (Connie) and Rafi Silver (Tristan) are utterly convincing as a couple. Kleiger plays Connie as a lively, intelligent young woman who is sensitive to every minute effect of big pharma's chosen drug. Kleiger's Connie isn't depressed when she goes into the trial. Rather, she has a boyfriend and is completely self-possessed. Silver's Tristan is dynamic. He's a bit of a cut-up who sometimes talks back to Dr. James, then wonders aloud why he did so. He plays the moment he notices Connie with unabashed pleasure.
Gina Daniels is superb as Dr. James, who has had some success in her professional life but not so much in her personal life (she and Dr. Sealey have their own history together). One of Daniels's finest moments comes when she looks back on her past. Eric Hissom is very credible as Dr. Sealey, a man who has perfectly compartmentalized his life. Hissom's performance is particularly resonant during a monologue where he addresses his father, revisiting old arguments and insisting on his right to do whatever he wants with his life.
Director David Muse keeps the play moving with lightning-fast speed, which is appropriate to Prebble's clean, straightforward style. Luciana Stecconi's set is a sterile rectangular box with a white floor and white walls at either end. The audience face each other on either side of the set as if we are looking at an experiment from both sides.
Jesse Belsky's lighting adds quick blackouts between scenes and occasional neon lights around the perimeter. Alex Basco Koch's projections announce the patients' data and show their heartbeats. Costume designer Heather Jackson provides identical shirts, pants, and sweaters for Connie and Tristan, while the doctors appear in white lab coats.
The Effect reflects a real-life situation inspired by a British drug trial that failed horribly. Yet the play is in no way a tragedy or a clinical view of emotion. It is full of humor and ultimately manages to accomplish a delicate and difficult goal: to demonstrate how people profoundly affect one another, physically and emotionally, when they fall in love.