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The Effect

I'm Toby, I'm a psychiatrist, I'm afraid. My father was a heart surgeon and when I told him I wanted to specialize in psychiatry he said, "Oh really? The Cinderella of medicine?
—Toby Sealey, one of the play's two doctors warming up the audience in one of the talks he gives for the drug company that sponsors his research by explaining why he didn't follow in his father's footsteps. He goes on to explain that he didn't want to be "a plumber of the body" but an explorer and winds up thankful for his father's understanding and donating his body to science, helping to make it possible for "the Cinderella of medicine to go to the ball."
(L-R) Susannah Flood, George Demas, Kati Brazda, and Carter Hudson (Photo by Matthew Murphy
As I left the Barrow Street Theatre where British playwright Lucy Prebble's The Effect is now having its American premiere I overheard two young men who had also been there loudly disagreeing about the effect it had on them. "Booooring. A stupid combination of Big Pharma knock and love story" said one. "But I loved it" declared his companion.

While I don't agree with that naysayer, neither am I completely on the same page with his more enthusiastic friend. I found nothing boring or stupid about either Prebble's text, the performances or David Cromer's direction. I did, however, have some problems with the expose/love story structure. Fortunately, Prebble pretty much puts these to rest through her ability to tackle serious issues with humor as well as poignancy.

The seriousness of the questions posed and the somber aspects of the love story sandwiched into the play's drug research study setup, don't make The Effect a show to fall in love with as I did with the delightfully frothy revival of She Loves Me. Yet The Effect's themes and characters draw you in and leaves you with much to think about.

Like Enron, Prebble's hit play about financial malfeasance, The Effect arrives in New York bolstered by ecstatic reviews in London. But London to New York, and vice-versa, transfers can be risky, especially if the original cast isn't aboard. And so it was with Enron. Except for a few critics (this writer among them —review ), the American production failed to repeat its London success. The transfer of The Effect is likely to fare better since the New York port of landing is the intimate Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village, which is exactly where this four-hander belongs. (There's actually a 5th actor, George Demas, playing a lab assistant)

The Barrow Street venue marks a homecoming for David Cromer who directed Our Town and Tribes there, both justly lauded and much extended. Unlike those plays, in which Cromer had the audience surrounding the stage, he's opted to take advantages of the theater's flexibility to stage The Effect proscenium style. And, in keeping with the unpretentious downtown location he's chosen to rely on actors without instant name recognition to bring the play's four characters to poignant and engaging new life.

The basic set up is a play about what goes on in the sort of drug testing facility seeded by our pill-popping society and which here also sets a love story in motion. The medical research facility in which the play unfolds is involved in testing a new anti-depressant drug. While it involves close to a dozen volunteer guinea pigs, we only meet Tristan Frey and Connie Hall who's the only female volunteer. Representing the program's staff side are the two doctors running the program, Dr. Lorna James who deals with the volunteers on a day-to-day basis and Dr. Toby Sealey who spends much of his time promoting the drug company that's sponsoring the study.

Connie and Tristan are both young and good looking but very different. He's a charming, fast-talking drifter, she a more motivated, practical psychology student. A romance would be unlikely to blossom if they weren't being thrown together in a closely controlled, confining quarters for four weeks and experiencing the effects of the new drug administered in regularly increased doses. Part of what the drug does is to increase the levels of dopamin, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers.

As flirtation morphs into passion, Tristan is gung-ho for it to continue after their stint at the medical facility. Connie feels it's all the effect of the drug. She nevertheless joins him in breaking the rules to be together. Dr. James is alarmed by their behavior and feels they should be removed from the program, but Dr. Sealey is excited at the prospect that this turn of events may result in the possibility of "a Viagra for the heart." As Connie and Tristan bring their own conflicting pasts to their arguments as to whether what they're feeling is genuine or drug induced, so there's a subplot about the doctors' personal relationship as well as Dr. James's own episodes of depression and dealing with an aspect of the tests not anticipated.

It all makes for a fascinating double debate. And even though I found the parallels between the two couples somewhat too schematic, this is an intelligent, exciting play with lots of very sharp dialogue. Fortunately David Cromer's pristine staging is smartly focused on that compelling dialogue and on the performances.

The actors are indeed the play's heart and soul. Susannah Flood brings warmth and wit to Connie, believably conveying her conflicting romantic and practical feelings. Carter Hudson is thoroughly endearing as the convention and rules-be-damned Tristan. Katie Brazda is also very fine as psycho-therapist Dr. James, who wants only to help people and who ends up embodyig the play's most intense quandaries about the emotional cost of over-medicating ourselves and the ethical validity of a study like this. Steve Key manages to bring nuance to the role of Dr. Sealey. He's all charismatic pitchman in the speeches he makes for Raushen (Prebble's fictional drug company). But his belief in the value of psychophamacology is genuine. Key also gets some of the play's most memorable lines, like the above text from his standard talks as the chief spokesman for the drug company supporting his work.

My reference to Cromer's staging as pristine doesn't mean that this is bare bones minimalism without striking images. Marsha Ginsberg's scenic design,Tyler Micoleau's lighting and especially Maya Ciarrocchi's projections, skillfully and vividly support the scene to scene navigation.

Despite the already mentioned heavy emphasis on the count-counterpoint of the doctors and young lovers, The Effect imaginatively explores the disturbingly complicated machinery of drug development and marketing most of us know little about. Prebble's inspirational source was a clinical drug trial at a London facility that went disastrously wrong and to tackle this tricky topic authentically she actually spent two weeks as a volunteer for another study. But Prebble is not a muckraking journalist but a playwright. It's the romance that propels her plot may at first seem like a mostly authorial device to lighten things up, but it turns out to be as as combustible and unsettling as the complexities of the situation that brought that brought two hungry for love people together.

Postscript: For a journalist's multiple case study coverage on the subject of drug trial safety and moral conundrum of using paid volunteers, you might want to read Carl Elliott's Guinea-pigging in the January 7, 2008 issue of the New Yorker ( For descriptions and review links to other plays with science backgrounds covered by Curtainup, see our Science Page .

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The Effect by Lucy Prebble
Directed by David Cromer
Cast: Kati Brazda (Dr. Lorna James), Susannah Flood (Connie Hall), Carter Hudson (Tristan Frey),Steve Key (Dr. Toby Sealey), George Demas (Research Lab Technician)
Scenic Design by Marsha Ginsberg
Costume Design by Sarah Laux
Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design by Erik T. Lawson
Original Music by Daniel Kluger
Projection Design by Maya Ciarrocchi
Fight Direction by J. David Brimmer
Properties Design by Carrie Mossman
Stage Manager,Richard A. Hodge
Running Time: 2 hours, with 1 intermission
Barrow Street Theatre 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue,
From 3/02/16; opening 3/16/16; closing 6/19/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 18th press preview

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