Review: The Effect by Capital T Theatre
by David Glen Robinson
The Effect by Lucy Prebble takes us into clinical trials and testing, and offers us a glimpse of what we’ve always suspected really goes on in the corridors and sancta of pharmaceutical research. Yes, deep in the core of the institution, much as at Pharmaco in Austin, there beats a heart of love. This play is a love story, and it veers close to the Romeo and Juliet model of all such although not too close.
The lovers, you see, are subject volunteers for human trials on a new medication, but not at the beginning of the program. New drugs are always under FDA testing to gain permitted marketing, so trials are designed to an exact statistical perfection to gain a profitable license. The audience is not told the drug name or its exact purpose, but the psychiatrist administrators of the program played by Rommel Sulit and Rebecca Robinson worry that the active agent may interfere with natural dopamine levels in the subjects. That it does, and two of the subjects, played by Delante G. Keys and Sarah Danko, go off, definitely out of school, to explore the effect. And they do so while remaining in the program--and there’s the rub.
It is these subjects who explore the modern question of love—is love the intersection of brain chemical levels and a nearby body, or is love the autonomous stimulator of chemicals in the brain? Down the former road lies Brave New World, but also the potential to ameliorate tragic love and its grinding, ego-dissolving effects. Down the latter road lies the desperation that we are helpless before the winds of fate, but also the potential to gain a palpable sense of the Mystery. Our lovers, and only belatedly the psychiatric administrators, engage these issues of philosophy.
One strong but subtle virtue of Prebble’s play is the realistic and organic building of the depicted love relationship contrasted to the spare and sterile background of a clinical facility. The protagonists take their time, and the audience’s dopamine levels rise along with the lovers’. On a deeper level, Prebble allows us to see how the lovers and all such today have completed a cycle of several hundred years’ orbit. Love today is supposedly free of the restrictions of family, class, racial, gender, and sexuality restrictions implacably imposed in the western world at least since medieval times. Now we perceive new restrictions. For the subject lovers they involve violations of the statistical research design, which is detailed down to the requirement of shining flashlights in the subjects’ mouths to ensure they have swallowed the caplets.
Of course, the lovers investigate their own lives without restraint and take actions—discovered by the staff—that would have had them expelled without a second chance from absolutely any real controlled research program. This may be a flaw in the play; all those who have taken a psychology course can decide this for themselves. But Prebble is telling a story, and we are interested. We're on the hook.
And it does get complicated. Conflicts among the staff build like an impending avalanche, especially those involving uncharted feelings. Ambition links to hubris, as always. Not only that: Issues with placebo testing scramble our slowly evolving understandings. Prebble doesn’t want us to know where she's looking until the end, until she convinces us that the only thing harder than dealing with love is executing a statistical research program. We are wholly convinced.
The Effect by Lucy Prebble is a rare modern play that is many things—a look at a seldom-examined industry, a near-classic love story, a pharmacological mystery, and maybe a few other things. All this largely hangs together, mostly by dint of the exceptional cast. A second act dialogue between Keys and Danko transcends by far any acting studio exercise, every impassioned phrase crystal clear. And then, dang! That was followed by an equally skilled dialogue between Robinson and Sulit.
Forget your college organic chemistry. Go see The Effect for some real acting chemistry. It was good enough for this reviewer almost to forget his peevishness at the sight of actors in character, in costume, and in all-too-bright work lights changing sets between scenes.
The show is great for ages 14 and up. The Effect runs from May 25th through June 17 at the Hyde Park Theatre. Recommended.
May 25 - June 17, 2017
511 West 43rd Street
Austin, TX, 78751
The funny and gripping play will run from May 25 - June 17, 2017 (only 12 performances!).
Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd Street at Guadalupe, Austin.
Tickets are $20 general admission and $30 VIP supporter plus service fees.
Available via the Capital T website.