Review: Volunteers In A Drug Trial Just Say Yes In ‘The Effect’

Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell in The Effect. Marc Brenner

The Effect | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | The Shed | 545 West 30th Street | 646-455-3494

Normally, I don’t review the preshow, but the one at The Effect, well, slaps. Lights are low (watch your step!) and fog wafts through the Shed’s vaulted gloom. The air resounds with fat-bottomed beats mixed by Michael “Mikey J” Asante: bass-heavy EDM pierced by whoops and chanting, cranked up. Are we supposed to take our seat and peruse the program or krump shirtless on the narrow central platform? The white deck and low-hanging light rig remind you of a fashion runway or an underground dance club.

What does this have to do with Lucy Prebble’s 2012 play about a Big Pharma trial and messy human emotions, which director Jamie Lloyd (A Doll’s House) renovates with his trademark minimalist gloss? This revival opened last year at London’s National Theatre and arrives at the Shed for a limited run through March. Are Lloyd and designers Jon Clark (lighting) and George Dennis (sound) trying to hype us up for what is, finally, a cerebral downer? Do they mean to disorient us, rattle us, put us in the giddy but anxious state of drug testers in the play: alternately euphoric and paranoid? Or maybe the rave-on-molly vibe is because this is indeed a cool event, starring cool, beautiful people saying cool things amplified through body mics. 

Michele Austin and Taylor Russell in The Effect. Marc Brenner

Prebble’s play is genuinely engaging and smart, a pharmacological twist on the nurture-versus-nature debate that gets very dark. It played Off Broadway in a 2016 production directed by David Cromer that was far less flashy than this one, but sober and satisfying. Working with Lloyd and the present ensemble, Prebble trimmed some text and rewrote character back stories for the all-Black cast. The piece is still essentially the same. Young and attractive Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) and Connie (Taylor Russell) enter a clinical trial for an experimental antidepressant. They receive increasing dosages in a closed facility while their reactions are observed and recorded (average increased height: 2 cm.) by the no-nonsense Dr. Lorna James (Michele Austin). James’s supervisor, Dr. Toby Sealey (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), a swaggering star in pharmaceutical circles, shows up to marvel over her progress. 

Tristan is a raffish, flirty dude and his new friendship with the uptight, standoffish Connie (a psychiatry student at university) starts to veer into affection and then heedless lust. Parallel to their growing (and against-the-rules) affair, we learn that James and Sealey also tumbled into bed years ago at a psychiatry conference. She was smitten—until discovering the married man was a notorious fuckboi. James’s romantic disappointment only intensified a lifelong depression that approaches suicidal ideation. Sealey knows his colleague has mental-health issues and lets slip that not only are the drug takers under observation, so are the drug givers. 

Kobna Holdbrook Smith in The Effect. Marc Brenner

All this interpersonal drama is just a scaffolding for Prebble to interrogate the difference between spontaneous emotion and drug-induced moods, and to dismantle the mind/body dichotomy. Where do our natural chemicals end and synthetic ones begin? Reporting on the mutual crush between Connie and Tristan, James tells Sealey: “I think their physical symptoms and this neural activity is a result of that . . . attraction. And it’s obscuring any sense of what the drug itself is doing.” To which he replies, what if that is the effect? They were looking for a better antidepressant, but perhaps they’ve found a love drug. When Connie learns that either she or Tristan is on a placebo, she’s thrown into romantic panic, not knowing if she’s experiencing true love or a neurochemical glitch. When the truth of who’s on the placebo is revealed to Tristan, he is heartbroken. “What am I feeling, then?” he asks Connie, mournfully. When she tries to get them on the same page (chemically speaking) by passing her drug into his mouth with a kiss, the results are disastrous. 

Vocally and physically, it’s a well-balanced quartet: Russell the inscrutable, breathy waif, Essiedu with a dancer’s grace and rascally charm, Austin rueful and sympathetic, and Holdbrook-Smith wielding a velvety basso. Set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour dresses the test subjects in white sweatsuits and the doctors in stylish black. The monochromatic palette and violence of sound and light effects seem to underscore the devastating mood swings characters go through. There are more understated touches: when a character ingests a pill, they stand inside a bright, white square as light ripples over them, suggesting a spirit or a fairy entering their body. Only 100 minutes without intermission, The Effect is not dull on the eyes, even if it drags a bit in its last third as Lloyd’s dogged starkness begins to wear on the nerves. Two chairs, no set pieces, no props, just a white bucket with a brain in it. A lump of grey matter sealed in cheap plastic: a perfect metaphor for today’s medicated mind.

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Review: Volunteers In A Drug Trial Just Say Yes In ‘The Effect’

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