Michael Weller puts a well-heeled couple’s decaying marriage and their curiously symbiotic relationship under the microscope in Side Effects, now being presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
Like its predecessor, Fifty Words, this new play brims with emotional pyrotechnics even as it sheds light on a pivotal (but unseen) character in the earlier work. But despite fiercely committed performances from stars Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith, this melodramatic and sometimes sketchy play, directed by David Auburn, strains theatergoers’ credulity.
Set in the posh living room of a manse (an oh-so-tasteful scenic design by Beowulf Boritt) of an anonymous Midwestern suburb, Side Effects focuses on the cracks that have formed in the 14-year marriage between the staunchly conventional aspiring politician Hugh (Smith) and his free-spirited, bipolar afflicted wife Melinda “Lindy” (Richardson).
It’s certainly an unlikely pairing and it’s the fodder for a potentially fascinating portrait of how two diametrically opposed individuals can craft a life together, even as they compromise for the sake of one another. But until the final scene, in which theatergoers learn how deeply entwined the two are emotionally, the play is undermined by Weller’s melodramatic use of not only Lindy’s disease, but also Hugh’s almost megalomaniac need for control, along with the scandals, including a too predictable one involving their two unseen teen sons, that threaten to derail his campaign for office.
The overblown nature of events in the couple’s life is only enhanced by some of Weller’s less elegant dialogue. At one point she declaims “How much Lindy must I sacrifice to your ambitions?” while in one of his more heated moments, Hugh awkwardly demands “I gave up a great deal — for us. And now you’ll do the same.”
Thankfully, Richardson and Smith dive into the play with impressive zealousness. She is particularly adept at navigating the hairpin turns of Lindy’s mercurial ways and mood-shifts, which are guided not only by the character’s bipolar disorder but also her unwillingness to maintain her various drug regimens. Richardson is less adept, however, in distinguishing between the ways in which Lindy manipulates Hugh as the character seeks to gain some sort of control of her own in an increasingly claustrophobic relationship.
Smith, who at times can visually and aurally bring to mind the younger President Bush, has the unenviable task of playing a distasteful and openly aggressive character. To his credit, the performer embraces each of Hugh’s smarmy traits and seems to revel in being the “villain” in the marriage. Unfortunately, his turn never fully illuminates the other side of the character, who was, as cursorily indicated in the script, a bad boy himself.
Without fully establishing this, theatergoers never fully understand what might have initially drawn the couple together, and more important, why they may be as inextricably linked as the play’s ending — which surprisingly manages to send chills even as it gets some of the biggest, and perhaps unintended, laughs — would seem to indicate.