Put two attractive young people in a room for four weeks, stimulate them with pharmaceuticals that have unknown properties, and then act surprised at what happens. This is the slightly skewed premise of The Effect, the new play at Strawdog Theatre. It’s an intelligent and sharply written play that will give you plenty to discuss afterwards.
The script by Lucy Prebble features clever, quick dialogue and interesting, seesaw relationships between two young patients and two middle-aged doctors. It’s a highly watchable show marked by Elly Green’s sharp direction and timing and superb lighting design that adds complexity to the minimalist set design. In particular, a love scene at the end of act one is strikingly punctuated with a series of quick blackouts.
The setting is a posh clinic where the paid volunteers take part in a drug test for an antidepressant. Tristan (Sam Hubbard) is a funny, energetic, randy guy who’s assigned to spend his days in a room with Connie (Daniella Pereira), a psychology student who has a boyfriend. She knows a little something about such drug tests and likes to quiz the doctor for more info about what’s going on. When we meet them, they are just about to submit their urine tests for verification, so throughout the first scene, they’re both holding jars of urine. (“You should drink more water,” Connie tells Tris, observing his darker-colored fluid.) Throughout the play, EKGs and other medical tests monitor the two patients on a projection screen.
The two doctors have tangled pasts and present. Dr. Lorna James (Justine C. Turner) is the doctor in charge of the clinical test and her supervisor is Dr. Toby Sealey (Cary Shoda), with whom she has a fraught relationship and a past liaison. He’s married with children. Sometimes the two couples are on stage at once, with the alternate couple in a tableau, while the spotlighted pair interact.
Soon after the administration of the first dose of antidepressant, both Tristan and Connie become closer. Their hearts pound, their reactions are hyper and they’re not sleeping well. And it’s not long before they’re physically attracted and even expressing love. But is it really love or is it the drug? Connie first expresses that doubt. And when it seems that one of them is receiving a placebo rather than the real thing, that doesn’t make any difference. The doctor points out that people receiving a placebo think they’re receiving the drug and are disposed to act as if they are on the real thing.
Connie argues that their attraction must be the drug but Tristan disagrees. “People meet and fall in love in all sorts of ways, doesn’t matter what started it. I’m sure there’s a rush of something chemical if you meet on vacation….” And later, “I’ve taken drugs before, right? There’s not a drug in the world can make you look at someone, find them attractive or listen to them and find them interesting.” Connie disagrees, but she slips into the attraction too—because the reason ceases to matter.
Prebble’s script is well written (and it’s clear why she’s a successful TV writer) but the flaw in the script is that the pairing and relationships of the two couples is almost too symmetrical. Yeaji Kim’s scenic and projection design are simple backdrops for the sharp dialogue. The lighting design by Claire Chrzan and John Kelly, and Isaac Mandel’s sound design, complete the picture. All four actors give fine performances, but Pereira and Hubbard are especially real as the young volunteers.
Warning—and I mention this even though it ’s a bit of a spoiler. There’s one scene where a character has a very realistically performed seizure, which might be troubling to anyone who has experienced this or gone through it with a loved one. I found it hard to watch. It does seem odd, however, that a volunteer’s history of seizures wouldn’t have been identified in advance. Someone with that medical history probably shouldn’t be in a clinical trial for antidepressants.
Lucy Prebble writes for film, television, games and theater. She is probably best known for her play Enron, about the infamous corporate fraud. The Effect was directed by Chicago’s native son, David Cromer, in its 2016 U.S. premiere at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York. She often writes for TV in the U.K. and the U.S. and is the co-executive producer and writer for the HBO series, “Succession.” She was head screenwriter for Bungie’s first-person shooter video game, Destiny.
The Effect continues at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, through November 23. Running time is just under two hours, including an intermission. Tickets are $35 for performances Thursday-Sunday.