NEW YORK (AP) — Can a pill really make people feel like they're in love? That idea is examined amid sophisticated questioning of neuroscientific issues in Lucy Prebble's intimate, intelligent new play "The Effect."
Prebble, whose "Enron" examined the mysteries of stock market manipulation and runaway greed, here provides an affecting drama about the mysteries of love and depression, compounded by the unknown effects of pharmacology on the brain.
An intense American premiere opened Sunday night off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre, directed by David Cromer and co-produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Two couples are involved in a voluntary antidepressant drug trial that will seriously impact both relationships. Prebble gives them credible dialogue that reflects her questioning of the limits of neuroscience and casual modern-day pill-popping.
A pair of volunteers in the trial are portrayed by Susannah Flood, effortlessly spontaneous as bright psychology student Connie, and a breezily charming Carter Hudson as carefree, wisecracking Tristan.
Kati Brazda and Steve Key play doctors running the trial, who are reunited years after a relationship ended, perhaps badly. Brazda begins with cool efficiency as Dr. Lorna James, who suffers from depression herself and becomes much less clinical as events unfold. Key gives a confident showmanship to Dr. Toby Sealey, a pill-pushing pharmaceutical promoter supervising Lorna and the trial.
The forbidden yet budding romance between the young volunteers is intense and often comical, as they feverishly discuss whether their love is real or dopamine-driven. The older doctors are less interesting, but their role is to present opposing views of the nature of depression and the workings of the brain.
Lorna feels that depression can be caused by external factors, claiming that "us so-called 'depressed people' have a more accurate view of the world." But Toby believes that the drugs he studies and promotes can cure "chemical imbalances" in people that are the true root of depression, and even suggests that "Emotions' aren't really...'real.'"
As the dosage of the trial drug increases, so does the tension onstage. While the hospital setting is orderly and claustrophobic, Cromer smartly focuses on the increasing passion of the young lovers, especially in an exuberant lovemaking scene.
The mood significantly alters in the second act, though, and there are some heartbreaking moments as various characters display extraordinary tenderness and desolation. Prebble leaves plenty of uncertainty about the questions she's raised, not just about pharmaceuticals but also about the age-old mysteries of love and attraction.