“You can’t give us a drug that makes you take risks and make bad decisions, and then punish us for taking risks and making bad decisions.” This, the complaint from brainy and practical Connie, one of the paid volunteers in a cloistered four-week pharmaceutical trial testing the effects of a new anti-depression drug on people with “healthy” brains.
The infraction she speaks of is falling madly in love and getting intimate with one of the other volunteers, impulsive and charming Tristan, who she only just met. The punishment is the threat of getting kicked out of the trial by the supervising psychiatrist, Lorna. She needs her subjects to remain unattached and celibate in order to collect clean data for her boss Toby, a doctor desperate to get his drug to market.
Besides, Lorna explains, the drug they’re taking is a type of dopamine, the chemical unleashed when one experiences new and exciting situations, like falling in love. Tristan and Connie aren’t really falling for each other, it’s just the drugs, she insists. Assuming neither one is taking the placebo dosage, that is.
Love, chemical psychiatry, depression and the business of big pharma are all up for examination in Lucy Prebble’s personal and provoking four-hander, The Effect. It’s a lot of meat for one show. Too much in fact. But with performances this exquisite, who cares if the story runs away with itself somewhat. We’ll happily let these talents take us down a somewhat muddy path, just so we can marvel at what they create as they take us there.
When it comes to Connie (Callina Anderson giving us her best performance to date) and Tristan (Dan Geist, showing how showstopping is done) what is created is first and foremost heat. In fact, the words THAT’S HOT in all caps are scribbled and underlined in my notes so repeatedly it’s like Paris Hilton circa 2007-ish was reviewing this show.
But the chemistry these two create as they flirt, tease, lust after and eventually give in to their impulses, drug-induced or not, is so visceral it’s almost uncomfortable to witness. However, it’s nowhere near the empathy we feel watching the pair suffer under the ever-increasing dosages that leave them anxious, agitated and in agony.
If you never believed an actor could emote with his feet, all you need to do is watch Geist’s clenched toes as he spins out in chemical-induced mania. As the drugs course through her, Anderson’s jitters and twitches manifest magnificently, subtle but relentless. It pains us to watch these two and yet we can’t look away.
But more is more when it comes to a couple issues in Prebble’s script. There’s more than professional connection between Lorna (a superbly restrained and tenuous Carolyn Johnson) and Toby (TiMOThY EriC channeling his trademark shiny-eyed charm but also digging deeper with great results). The two have history. Not the kind that makes them unfriendly in the present, but the kind that hangs in the air like a lingering stench they try to ignore.
Perhaps there was love there once. For sure there was depression that got in the way of love fully realized. And this is where Prebble overflows her already boiling pot.
She uses the doctors to examine issues of depression and doping. Toby is a strong proponent of drug therapy, and maybe not just because he stands to make a lot of money from his miracle drug, if the trial shows the right results. Toby may be slick, he’s got his “speech” down pat and he certainly can wow the ladies. But Prebble wants us to believe that he does care. That he truly believes the scourge of depression can be not just alleviated, but cured, by medication.
Lorna on the other hand, a depressive herself we find out way too late in the show, thinks that perhaps depression is external, the result of mistakes an individual has made or an alert to change one’s path.
It’s an interesting debate for sure, one that Prebble tries to dovetail with the love as stimulant or natural causes narrative. But try as she might, and in this production in spite of the superlative scenes between Lorna and Toby, the two scenarios just feel wedged unnaturally together. Worse still, Prebble throws her own opinions on both subjects firmly into the final scenes rather than letting her audience figure out where they land in the dual debates.
Credit where it’s due, however. No matter one’s issues with the overstuffing of Prebble’s plot, there’s no denying her prowess with dialogue. The satisfying lines and passages fly at us like whipping rain. “I didn’t want to be a plumber of the body, I wanted to be an explorer,” says Toby on why he became a psychiatrist instead of a heart surgeon like his father.
“There’s no such thing as side effects, there’s only effects you can’t sell,” says Lorna to Toby as he dismisses the issues his volunteers are having with his drug. “You can’t lease the way I feel,” says Connie as Lorna asserts ownership of her emotions as part of the trial conditions.
Credit also comes in the form of a late in the game twist to the Tristan/Connie plot we don’t see coming. Well, it’s a twist that makes up for a ridiculous twist that proceeds an unnecessary twist. So maybe it’s canceled out in the end. But when the good twist comes, it is very satisfying.
Thankfully there are no bad twists when it comes to the stark yet beautiful set design by Stefan Azizi and Afsaneh Aayani. On a raised platform that bisects the theater into two audience sides, is a multitude of white as white square shaped panels. Like a cross between the inside of an igloo and a gleaming sanitarium, the effect (no pun intended) is that of both containment of emotion and freedom from contamination. Squares pull out to double as beds, desks, and cupboards. But no matter what drawer is pulled, the only warmth exuded in this space is from the lust or hatred or resentment of the characters themselves.
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A final nod must go to director Sophia Watt for the perfect harmony she creates from a cast that we’ve neither seen together on a stage before nor imagined previously. We have Houston powerhouse talent, up and coming exciting performers and actors we adore and wish we saw more of. Under Watt’s assured hand, this cast has both the energy of a first time outing and the ease of regular colleagues.
The result is pure magic.
The Effect, part of the inaugural Houston Equity Festival, runs through May 19 at MATCH Theater, 3400 Main Street. For information, visit matchouston.org. $18-24.
For more information on the festival, visit daingeist.wixsite