by Mike Hoban
‘The Effect’ – Written by Lucy Prebble; Directed by Sam Weisman; Set & Projection Design by J. Michael Griggs; Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Sound Design by David Remedios; Composer, Claudio Ragazzi; Choreography by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company through July 8
Oh Oh, catch that buzz
Love is the drug I’m thinking of
Oh Oh, can’t you see
Love is the drug for me
“Love is the Drug” – 1975 single by Roxy Music
Is true love something that can be prescribed?
The Effect, now making its New England premiere at Gloucester Stage, asks that question, as Big Pharma guy Dr. Toby Sealey of Rauschen Pharmaceuticals hopes to create “a Viagra for the heart” as clinical trials for the experimental antidepressant with the unsexy name of RLU37 get underway. But as we soon find out, results are not always predictable whenever there’s a human element in the experiment, even in a sterile clinical setting.
The firm has recruited young, healthy subjects with no history of depression for their research, and we meet our protagonist guinea pigs, Connie and Tristan, as they are being taken through their initial screenings by Dr. Lorna James (Lindsay Crouse), a psychiatrist who is much more at home talking with patients than in a research setting. Tristan (Mickey Solis) is a free spirit and a frequent flier on the clinical trials for cash circuit, and we get an immediate read on his character when he attempts to flatter the 60-ish Dr. James, telling her that she “is a very attractive woman” as he leaves to give his urine sample.
On the way back, he bumps into the beautiful 20-something Connie (Susannah Hoffman) in the waiting area, and – with each clutching their respective urine samples – the flirting begins. But Connie is involved with an older man, a relationship that she has some serious misgivings about. Tristan senses opportunity, and the two begin their ill-advised (and strictly verboten for the clinical trial) courtship. They (along with the rest of the research subjects whom we never see) are given the experimental drug, which releases dopamine – the brain chemical that is often associated with pleasure-seeking behavior – in increasingly higher dosages, and as the relationship blossoms, we’re left to decide whether it’s the drug or the result of two very attractive, (and impulsive) young people being left in an enclosed environment with no other choices for mates.
So is the romance more like a “Love Boat” episode (or more aptly, a romantic fling on “Celebrity Rehab”) or is the RLU37 doing exactly what Dr. Sealey was hoping it would? Despite the obvious case for the former, the usual infatuated behavior exhibited by the young lovers – lack of sleep, racing thoughts, poor decision making – is at such an elevated level that it would embarrass Romeo and Juliet. And to add another layer of complexity to the equation, one of the subjects may be taking a placebo, so it’s possible that at least one of them may just be crazy in love.
Connie and Tristan aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of romance. Dr. James is reeling from a major depression brought on by unmet expectations following a fling with libidinous Dr. Sealey (Brad Hall of SNL fame) at a conference a few years prior. And we know it’s not just a simple case of the blues, when in a reflective moment she tells him, “Sometimes I think I’m already dead, and my body just hasn’t caught up yet.” If she sounds like someone who could benefit a hearty dose of anti-depressants herself, forget about it. For one, she tells Sealey, “Depressed people have a more accurate view of the world, a more realistic view of themselves and others.” On top of that, she doesn’t think that anti-depressants work. “There is no evidence of the efficacy of anti-depressants,” she passionately declares.
Sealey on the other hand, is of the opinion that all human behavior is subject to manipulation by chemicals, telling James, “Emotions aren’t really…real.” He also lays claim to the title of poster boy for all that is wrong with the pharmaceutical industry, punctuated by a Ted-style talk (with a brain in hand) at a pharmaceutical convention that is alternately inspiring and creepy.
Preble is a gifted playwright, weaving a pair of imaginative love(?) stories while gently taking shots at what is – ironically – one of the least compassionate segments of the American corporate system, the pharmaceutical industry. She has a keen ear for the everyday dialogue of both the working and professional classes, and the exchanges in the early scenes between Connie and Tristan are often hilarious. The Effect is a well-conceived and executed piece, brought to life by this terrific cast. Oddly enough, it is Hoffman and Solis who carry the bulk of the action, despite the obvious star power of Crouse and Hall, whose characters (in some respects) are far more screwed up than Connie and Tristan could ever be.
For those of you who haven’t made a trip up to this wonderful little theater, The Effect is as good a reason as any to make the trek. For more info, go to: http://gloucesterstage.com/