May 11, 2016

"The Effect" Sets Off a Positive Reaction

There's been so much going on in the theater (and in my life) over the past few weeks that I haven't had a chance to talk about one of my favorite shows of the spring season: The Effect, which, luckily, is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre until Labor Day so you've plenty of time to see it. Which you definitely should.

It would be easy to dismiss The Effect as a simple rom-com. There's a couple that meets cute (they're paid participants in a study to gauge the effectiveness of an experimental anti-depressant). And they're the kind of opposites that always seem to attract in those kinds of stories (she, Connie, a by-the-rules gal; he, Tristan, a goof-off).

But the British playwright Lucy Prebble has more on her mind than the usual will-they-won't-they question. Prebble is the author of the play Enron, a deep dive into the nefarious doings that lead to the collapse of the giant energy company. That show racked up awards when it played in London but lasted just 16 performances on Broadway back in 2010.

I caught one of them and liked what I saw (click here to read my review). But I like even more that Prebble is willing to wrestle with the big issues of our day and the forces that make them so.

In The Effect, she takes on Big Pharma and its endless crusade to medicalize everything that happens to us so that it can sell us drugs that are supposed to control situations that earlier generations regarded simply as a natural part of being alive.

Medical researchers monitor Connie and Tristan's responses to the new drug while they're quarantined on a medical ward. They tell them that sex is verboten because it will have it own effect on their hormone levels. Of course—and this is no spoiler—the couple ignores the prohibition.

But as their flirtation deepens, they find they can't tell if what they're feeling for one another is true love or a drug-induced effect. That could be played for laughs but Prebble raises the stakes as doses of the medication are steadily increased leading to unanticipated reactions and a clash between the doctors running the test, who have a complicated relationship of their own.

The result is a bracing investigation into the nature of love that stimulates both the head and the heart. And David Cromer, perhaps the smartest director working today, draws out all the nuances of the competing arguments in a sleek production, punctuated by Maya Ciarrocchi's clever video projections (click here to read more about the making of the show).

And yet the best parts of this production are the performances by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson. Neither is well known but the unaffected and yet committed way in which they realize their roles proves that both should be. Particularly Hudson, who emits the idiosyncratic charms of a young Jeff Goldblum, a bit ungainly, not conventionally handsome and yet you can't take your eyes off him. 

I fell in love with both him and Flood—and with this play.

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