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A CurtainUp Review
Side Effects

I thought it was over, being together with you that way. It doesn't go away. Everything is always there, isn't it . . .hiding.—Hugh after he and Melinda return from a holiday that has restored some of the passion that brought them together to begin with. She shares his feeling with a wistful If only we could freeze moments like this.
Side Effects
Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith in Side Effects
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Three years ago Fifty Words, Michael Weller's combustible marriage story at MCC's home in the West Village, disarmed anyone ready to dismiss it with an "oh, no, enough already with the "unhappily undivorced stage couples like Edward Albee's Martha and George and Eugene O'Neill's Mary and James Tyrone." Fifty Words was not just more of the same depressing picture of marital disintegration. It featured a distinctly contemporary background and biting dialogue. Above all, Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz were true dynamite as the battling Adam and Jan, veering from loving to biting conversation, from tender to more violent embraces, from mutual admiration to hurtful putdowns. And the economic 2-character structure worked as well for this acerbic story than Jan de Hartog's more sentimental and much done The Four Poster.

Now Weller is back with another two-hander, about another pair of Humpty Dumpties whose marital problems seem too deep seated for the efforts of all the king's horses and all the king's men to put them together again. Side Effects is not only tangentially connected to Fifty Words (Butz's Adam from that play is an unseen but important character in this one) but also has the potential to be an engaging theatrical experience despite its much done dysfunctional marital situation. The Midwestern setting that explores a failing family business and how political ambition affects a candidate's family is worth visiting. However, despite Weller's sharply written interchanges this mirror play is far less powerful than its predecessor and the 2-character setup in this case seems to cry out for a larger cast to make Melinda (a.k. a. Lindy) and Hugh Metz's troubles rise above the all too familiar.

Joely Richardson, who looks even more like her mother Vanessa than she did when I first saw her on stage in Madame Melville is certainly a striking presence and makes the most of her volatile, character. In fact, she so over-emotes as the ever free-spirited, bipolar Lindy that she drowns out Cotter Smith's nuanced and understated performance in a role not too dissimilar from the one he played in Next Fall and more recently as an army Colonel in Kin.

The situation unfolds in five scenes. As with Fifty Words, Weller has dished up a complex mix of passionate love and resentment, a process of connect ing and disconnecting that began when Melinda and Hugh met, far from his conservative Midwestern family whose bicycle factory has long been a major source of employment to their city. The twenty-plus year marriage brought two sons, saw Hugh giving up his "Mad Metz " drinking and motorcycle days for a successful career as a banker and Lindy publishing a book of poetry and enjoying artistic, interesting friends.

But don't be misled by the advance promotional copy for the play which indicates the Lindy and Hugh's life as upstanding citizens of his home city is "pitch-perfect." The marriage may have been pitch-perfect at the very beginning and during some of their early years in New York, but the shadow of her problems with bipolar mood swings have overhung their relationship for a long time. In fact, it's what made Hugh opt to move the family back to his home base and the family business. And while he fell right in with the dinner parties and the idea of running for political office and Lindy embarked on a career in special education, this obviously has never been her milieu. It's debatable whether her continued emotional highs and lows are because she tends to purposely forget to take her meds, or because Hugh is so insistent that she remains medicated.

The action begins more or less in the middle of the marital downward spiral. A wordless opening scene finds Melinda dressed up for a party, in the darkened living room of her quite grand home. She's hardly a picture of contentment. When Hugh arrives we learn that she's walked out on a dinner with his mother and the man supporting his upcoming move into the political arena, an act he calls "extremely poor choice-making." Before the lights fade on that first scene, we know the history of the Metzes' flaming but now faded passion, their career details (hers as a special ed teacher, he as the head of the also fading family business fortunes but with rising political expectations). As if there weren't enough problems, Hugh wants to send their under-achieving teen-aged son to a boarding school and a caller on Lindy's cell phone raises the specter of infidelity.

When next we see Lindy she's in a much more upbeat mode, apparently as a result of new meds with no averse side effects (and so the title). She's about to go off as a speaker at a conference about "developmental cognition." Before she leaves, however, the topic of Adam her cell phone caller (and the already mentioned plot link to Fifty Words) surfaces, as does the increasing role played by Hugh's political mentor on every facet of their lives.

A wound healing vacation almost works until Weller tosses in a traumatizing disaster that takes the marriage to the place that leaves you wondering whether some marriages are beyond saving — but also whether a bad, intense relationship like this is ever really over. Wearing his director's hat, David Auburn the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Proof does his best to avoid the stasis of having this scenes from a marriage scenario play out on a single set and with the potentially interesting and dramatically vibrant characters and situations seen rather than talked about.

Auburn is ably assisted by Beowulf Boritt's handsome set, Jeff Croiter's effective lighting and Scott Killian's original soundscape. Too bad that neither Auburn or Weller's often smart dialogue, can prevent the side effect of making the actors appear to be locked into that spacious living room and preventing the fresh play hiding in all their talk from bursting into life.

Side Effects by Michael Weller
Directed by David Auburn
Cast: Joely Richardson (Melinda Metz), Cotter Smith (Hugh Metz)
Sets: Beowulf Boritt
Costumes: Wade Laboossonniere
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Original Music & sound: Scott Killian
Stage Manager: Kelly Glasow
Running Time: 90 Minutes no intermission
MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre121 Christopher Street 212-279-4200
From 6/02/11; opening 6/19/2011; closing 7/02/11
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 17th press preview
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