In The Effect by the young British playwright Lucy Prebble, a woman and a man in their twenties who have volunteered to take part in a six-week clinical trial for a new anti-depressant fall in love and start breaking the rules governing the procedure: first they wander out of bounds and then they have sex. The play, which is being given a fine production under David Cromer’s direction at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village, is intriguing and enjoyable, though – at least at a first viewing – a bit elusive. The first act takes the form of an unorthodox romantic comedy in which Connie (Susannah Flood) and Tristan (Carter Hudson) struggle to interpret their feelings, and each other’s feelings, when they’re aware that their emotional and sexual responses may be the consequence of the drug they’re being fed every morning, the dosage of which is being increased gradually. That is, the drug they may be taking, or only one of them may be ingesting, because some of the volunteers are in fact being given placebos. Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda), who is administering the trial for Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key), is also aware of these variables, though not, as it turns out, of all of them. She and Toby debate the other possibility – that it’s sexual attraction that is altering Connie and Tris, not the drug, and if that’s the case their incipient relationship may be corrupting the data. Love is so complicated and unpredictable to begin with that the idea of a play where drugs may be adding another layer of lunacy to romantic chemistry is irresistibly playful. There are more complications too. Lorna and Toby once had an affair, at a moment when her life was falling apart. And – unlike the subjects of the trial – she has a history of depression.
The play flips tones after intermission, and you miss the comedy when Prebble eliminates it, especially since Flood and Hudson have an easy, improvisational rapport. But the second act takes you into territory you didn’t expect in both Tris and Connie’s romance and in the development of Lorna’s personal story. (Toby is the least interesting of the four characters, and Key, whose gruff, imprecise vocal patterns are reminiscent of Mark Ruffalo’s, is the only one of the four actors who appears to be acting too hard.) The lovemaking sequence, which occurs at the top of act two, is divided between a scene of Connie and Tris in bed upstage right and a series of projections of them in close-up on a screen downstage left. Cromer jump-cuts – and stages his actors to approximate jump cuts in the live action – to create a montage that telescopes their conversation over a period of several hours; visually and in the work of the two actors, this is a marvelous and revealing sequence. (Maya Ciarrocchi designed the projections and the nifty minimalist set is by Marsha Ginsberg.) When Tristan has a bad reaction later on to the drug, or to the combination of the new dosage and (possibly) a recreational pill he’s slipped into his mouth, he winds up as a patient in the hospital, no longer a volunteer in a clinical trial, suffering from temporary amnesia. And we get a second montage covering conversations he and Connie have over a period of perhaps a week and a half when she comes to visit him and, since he doesn’t know her and can’t process new information, the technique approximates the state of his consciousness. I’m not sure how Prebble wants us to look at Tristan’s mental state at the end of the second act in terms of the play’s themes, but I loved watching the scene. In between these two fascinating exchanges is a lengthy, less successful one where the rawness of their emotions causes both the lovers to be alternately wary and aggressive, though not necessarily at the same times.
The other particularly striking second-act scene is one in which Lorna gives a lecture on the breakdown of the brain, using a plastic cerebellum to point out the location of various sensory and intellectual functions. Her report slips into a kind of autobiographical presentation, and we’re suddenly aware, with an urgency Prebble withheld in the first act, of her fragility. I saw Kati Brazda in An Opening in Time at Hartford Stage last fall, in a supporting role that didn’t give me a sense of how poignant an actor she can be. I’m sure it also helps to get to work with Cromer, a superb director of actors, returning for the third time to Barrow Street, where he mounted the New York premiere of Nina Raine’s Tribes and a revival of Our Town that is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on any stage. (I went back two more times.) Cromer is a work horse, and not all his productions work out, even of classic American plays: he directed the worst Streetcar Named Desire (at Williamstown) I’ve ever encountered. But at his best he’s a marvel. The skittering, probing quality of The Effect reminded me of the work he did with Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling at Lincoln Center, another show where he showcased the actors. They must love collaborating with him.
Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.