Ana Nogueira imagines chemical empathy in this world premiere from Colt Coeur.
Got a problem? There's a pill for that. Playwright Ana Nogueira extends our faith in pharmacology to its ludicrous conclusion in Empathitrax, her imaginative, brutally honest, and emotionally draining new play now receiving its world premiere from Colt Coeur at HERE. It's the latest is a slew of plays to deal with America's addiction to prescription drugs (last season's The Effect and 2016's Placebo immediately come to mind), but Nogueira adds an extra dose of awkward to her story that will have audiences squirming in their seats.
The play opens with Him (Jimmi Simpson) and Her (Justine Lupe) consulting with Joe (Genesis Oliver), a drug company sales representative. (Yes, this is one of those plays in which the protagonists remain frustratingly nameless, perhaps in a misguided gesture toward universality.) They are about to go on Empathitrax, a miracle drug that allows couples to perfectly understand how each other is feeling simply through touch. They hope it will help them get through what she refers to as, "A rough patch...more than a patch...a rough meadow." After separating briefly, they're back together and now have a dog, but they're still struggling. Will this chemically induced empathy be the key to saving their relationship?
Obviously not: Nogueira (who recently appeared as an actress in Engagements at Second Stage) doesn't rely on suspense to make her play compelling. We know from the earliest moments that this pill won't be enough to solve the underlying problems in their relationship: her chronic depression and his unwillingness to experience that depression with her. Instead, Nogueria crafts realistically raw dialogue that is likely to lead some viewers (especially the long-term coupled) to turn away from the stage in pained recognition — like when they attempt to have sex under the influence for the first time:
HIM: Do you...want to do this?
HER: What am I doing right now?
HIM: You don't feel like you want to do this.
HER: What? I do! I definitely do!
HIM: Okay...It's just...uhhh, hmm. It's not as intense as I thought.
Add the sound of a barking dog coming from the other room (simple and effective sound design by Matt Otto) and you have the ingredients for a decidedly unsexy encounter. Is there anything less hot than knowing exactly what your partner is thinking and feeling — and knowing that they can read your mind too? No matter what platitudes we spout about honesty being the backbone of any lasting relationship, those who have actually been in one will tell you that the spine is cushioned in a soft bed of white lies (if they are truly being honest).
Forcing us to see this up-close like perverse voyeurs, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt stages the play in what appears to be a sterile and soulless Long Island City high-rise apartment (smartly minimalist scenic design by Reid Thompson). There are very few frills to distract us from the emotional thrust of each scene.
As with most Colt Coeur productions, Empathitrax benefits from brave and committed performances: Lupe achieves the perfect balance of comedy and tragedy in Her, showing us a witty and lovable (if skittish) person in the early scenes who increasingly resembles an emotional vampire in the latter half, especially after she weans herself off Zoloft. "Do you feel all that?" she asks as she touches his chest, infecting him with her sadness. "It's scary right?" She genuinely wants him to understand her pain, but he would rather walk it off than wallow with her. And thanks to Simpson's sympathetic performance, we can't blame him. These are two fundamentally good people who desperately want to connect, but just can't.
Oliver provides the comic relief in his two roles: In addition to playing the indulgent drug company rep, he also plays Matty D, a friend who is just a little too involved in the couple's relationship. His arrival onstage is always welcome considering just how much of a downer the rest of this play can be.
Mercifully, Nogueria holds out hope for redemption from our quick-fix drug culture in a playful and tender final scene. While big problems can take a lifetime to overcome, simple acts of kindness can really make that process bearable. And unlike prescription meds, there are no negative side-effects: Being a nice person won't give you dry mouth or diarrhea, so we all ought to give it a try.