Two attractive young people, Connie and Tristan, meet as test subjects sequestered at a lab for a clinical trial. Over five weeks, they’re administered increasingly stronger doses of a new antidepressant drug, while researchers monitor the psychological, physiological, and emotional effects of the compound. Connie and Tris secretly flirt, bond, and fall in love. Is their attraction real, or merely a by-product of the dopamine-releasing chemicals?
Even the researcher supervising the trial, Dr. Lorna James, can’t be sure, and she’s somewhat at a loss trying to explain her findings to her direct supervisor, Dr. Toby Sealey. And in Studio’s dazzling, neon-lit production of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect (★★★½), the tension — professional, sexual, and otherwise — between the two doctors results in a more intriguing storyline than the forbidden dalliance between their two test subjects.
Katie Kleiger and Rafi Silver make Connie and Tris an appealing romantic pair, although as a comic duo, they don’t capture the same blissful rhythm. Prebble’s jokes can feel forced, yet the drama and language can be penetrating, particularly as delivered by Gina Daniels and Eric Hissom, who as doctors Lorna and Toby, offer monologues that probe the connection between the synapses firing in our brains, and the emotions that humans figuratively attribute to the heart.
Lorna occupies a compelling position at the junction between emotional and cerebral responses. She literally wields control over Connie and Tristan’s emotions, while remaining firmly circumscribed by her role working under Toby and other, unseen decision-makers at the pharmaceutical company that’s manufacturing the drug, and financing “her” research.
Daniels, alternately self-possessed and heartbreaking as Lorna, is brilliant in depicting the researcher’s unexpected journey over the course of the trial’s five weeks. As Toby, Hissom applies just the right amount of force playing an ambitious colleague who knows enough about Lorna’s past to believe he wields some control over her emotions.
While Connie and Tristan’s romance builds towards a dangerous climax, Toby pushes Lorna closer to a dangerous edge. The play crescendos in waves, mostly via a series of têtes-à-têtes, drawing towards the trial’s surprising conclusion. Director David Muse stages scenes as singles tennis matches, occasionally mixed doubles, with actors pitted at each other across the expanse of set designer Luciana Stecconi’s futuristic, fluorescent-ringed stage. The cell-like environment is properly sterile and cool, with dramatic heat added by bold lighting and sound, and sharply timed transitions.
The sensory impact is powerful, though perhaps overwhelming in moments that might have been well-served by less electrical stimulation. The combined visual effects don’t necessarily advance any deeper meaning in the love story between Connie and Tristan. As they become more involved, Tristan grows more aggressive, which might also be a side-effect of the drugs. Silver’s buoyant performance and a few last-act twists maintain the mystery, as the trippy visuals help maintain interest.
Still, the play’s fairly conventional central romance emerges as a slight structure to hang this story on. Connie and Tristan’s fates aren’t what the play is about. The effect that lingers is in the abstract contemplation of Prebbles’ ideas about how physiology, environment, and any number of other factors, trigger human emotions. Where psychoactive chemicals are involved, how can any emotion be trusted?
The Effect runs until October 29, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., NW. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call 202-332-3300, or visit StudioTheatre.org.
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