Theater Review: “The Effect” — Beware the Nasty Side Effects

By David Greenham

The Effect is about the brain, pharmaceuticals, and how little we know about each.

The Effect by Lucy Prebble. Directed by Christine Marshall. Scenic design by Caitlin Wold, lighting and projection design by Christopher DeFilipp, costume design by Savannah Irish, sound design by Scott Leland. Staged by Mad Horse Theatre Company at Mosher Street, South Portland, ME, through January 26.

A scene from the Mad Horse Theatre company’s The Effect. Photo: MHT

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect claims to be about love, or at least the irregularities and cautiously navigated paths that lead to love. But that is just a feint, thematically speaking. In fact, the play, which premiered in London in 2012, is about the brain, pharmaceuticals, and how little we know about each.

If you follow the news, especially the discussions about the reasons for homelessness, gun violence, and veterans issues, you’ll learn that almost every social challenge we face is subject to scapegoating, conveniently offloaded to the dangers of mental illness, depression, or some other kind of pernicious psychological or hyper-emotional condition.

Prebble’s drama looks at our rush to make every problem therapeutic by distilling down to the conflict between two pairs of unlikely lovers. Tristan Frey (Jake Cote) and Connie Hall (Allison McCall) have signed up for a four week residential lab test for a new antidepressant being given in the bland offices of an imaginary pharmaceutical company, Raus Chen. They meet, appropriately enough, while waiting to turn in their urine samples. Their chemistry is immediate.

On the other hand, the test is being conducted by Dr. Lorna James (Amanda Eaton) on behalf of the lab director, Dr. Toby Sealey (Mark Rubin). We learn that their relationship began years earlier with a romp at a conference that didn’t end well for either of them. The tensions between the two unfold slowly. Suffice it to say it would have been better for both of them to just walk away.

The test subjects are undergoing a month-long foray into the effects of a new antidepressant, which is supposed to increase the body’s levels of dopamine, allegedly to counteract the effects of depression. The popular (and simplistic) view of dopamine is that it’s a natural chemical that generates pleasure throughout our bodies – such as when we fall in love. However, in my soft-science understanding, it’s really a chemical that affects our motivation to do the things we do or, on the contrary, to stubbornly stand our ground.

There are two levels of human interaction in Prebble’s not terribly theatrical play. The first, and most appealing, is watching test subjects Frey and Hall fall in love — or think they’re going for each other. Their dialogue is fun, often clever, and very often sweet. Through this couple, Prebble raises helpful questions about how our ever-growing menu of pharmaceuticals affect our brain functions — beyond the laundry list of scary side effects that accompany the omnipresent drug ads on TV.

Less interesting is the overly technical chatter between Doctors James and Sealey. Here the focus is on the questionable value of the experimental techniques being used in the test, a discussion that reveals the questionable ethics of Sealey, who’s in charge. I’m pretty sure the “message” of The Effect is served up here. But Prebble’s critique of our overmedicated society is stated rather than dramatized. When James insists that “so-called depressed people have a more accurate view of the world” and goes on to cast doubt on the artificial positivity brought on by drugs, she makes a compelling point. But it doesn’t land. The dramatist’s premise is of relevant interest — but the script’s weak follow-through sinks under the weight of her ambitions.

Earnest and determined, the Mad Horse production generally comes off as wan. The entanglement between Amanda Eaton’s Dr. Lorna James and Mark Rubin’s Dr. Toby Sealey never gels into something solid. Part of the problem is that the characters are so busy recalling the past that their scenes in the present are often muddy. Their confrontations eventually devolve into irritating shouting matches. By the final scenes, Eaton’s James is working far too hard to emotionally justify the play’s twist at the end. Rubin’s Sealey is stuck having to cover up the mess.

As the test cases Frey and Hall, Cote and  McCall are engaging and endearing. They’re also very sweet together. Cote has a charming everyman aura about him, even when his character becomes manipulative. One of the show’s highlights is an improvised song and dance version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which takes place after the two escape the lab for the sake of an impromptu date. But it’s really McCall’s performance that holds the evening together. She’s reassuringly centered and emotionally connected to the character, which means she can hit Prebble’s more salient points with clarity.

Christine Marshall, an accomplished director and former Mad Horse artistic director, isn’t at her best here. But I’m not sure that it’s really her fault. The play itself is facilely cinematic, featuring quick cutaway scenes and brusque interactions among the characters. Most of the script’s “action” comes when Dr. James delivers increasing dosages of the test drug. Otherwise, The Effect revolves around people standing, sitting, or laying around — talking. It almost feels like two loquacious one-acts have been mashed together. Until the last quarter of the play, when stuff happens; well, if you consider it high drama when a character goes into some kind of an amnesic coma. But, even then, McCall’s Hall manages to hold your attention.

Mad Horse’s The Effect includes a rather antiseptic scenic design by Caitlin Wood, aside from a lovely mosaic design painted on the floor. (Though its significance is never explained.) Christopher DeFilipp’s lighting and projection designs are adequate. Unfortunately Savannah Irish’s costume design is hampered by the command to stick to lab coats and sweats. For me, Scott Leland’s new age-ish sound design is grating, though it is probably appropriate given the atmosphere of inaction.

I am a supporter of Mad Horse Theatre’s edgy mission and their aspiration to make audiences think. But the desire to shake things up is not always enough. There’s also the risk that sometimes, despite a troupe’s best efforts, the mark is missed. Of course, for me, it is just that uncertainty that keeps me going to live theater. Often you’ll see a play with some provocative scenes; sometimes you find a show that moves you; and every once in a while you’ll see a production that lifts and transforms you. This disappointing production provides only flickers of illumination — that is enough to keep me (and I hope you) coming.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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