‘The Effect’ Review: It’s More Than Chemical


Are you in love, or are you merely experiencing a giddy dopamine rush? Are those two states even meaningfully different? Is there a true, innermost “you” that is distinguishable from your neurochemistry?

These are some of the tricky questions explored by Lucy Prebble’s thought-provoking play, “The Effect,” first staged in 2012 and now revived in a slick new production directed by Jamie Lloyd at the National Theater, in London, running through Oct. 7.

“The Effect” revolves around two young people, Tristan and Connie, who take part in a trial for a dopamine-based psychiatric drug with powerful antidepressant properties. Initially, they seem to have little in common — he’s a working class lad from East London; she’s a bougie psychology student from Canada — but as the trial progresses, a tender rapport develops.

Throughout the study, the participants are monitored by two psychiatric doctors, Lorna and Toby, who debate their findings: Is the drug pulling their subjects together, or are their feelings organic? And if one of the trial participants was actually receiving a placebo the whole time, what then? Prebble keeps us guessing.

Paapa Essiedu — best known for his role in the hit TV show, “I May Destroy You” — is a delight as Tristan, whose roguish charm wins over the audience within minutes. Taylor Russell’s Connie is equally engaging as she slides from steely indifference to caring devotion, almost in spite of herself.

Throughout, the pair’s gradual transition from wary awkwardness to intense mutual magnetism is convincingly rendered, in large part thanks to the actors’ terrific onstage chemistry.

Things get messy in the latter stages of the experiment, as both the doses and the emotional stakes increase, leading to a fraught and affecting denouement.

The stiltedly ambivalent friendship between the two middle-aged doctors provides an intriguing subplot. We learn that Lorna (Michele Austin) and Toby (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) were once romantically involved, many years ago. Lorna is prone to bouts of depression, but refuses to take medication; Toby, on the other hand, is a true pharmaceutical believer.

Austin plays Lorna with a dry, matter-of-fact fatalism that, though somewhat gloomy, is altogether more sympathetic than Toby’s myopic zealousness. Holdbrook-Smith approaches the role with a brooding aplomb, delivering his lines in a suave, sociopathic drawl.

For most of the production, the two doctors are seated at opposite ends of the stage — a long strip, designed by Soutra Gilmour and sandwiched between tiered banks of audience seating — while their two guinea pigs occupy the center. During Lorna and Toby’s conversations, they are illuminated by square, pure-white spotlights and the center stage is plunged into darkness. Most of the time, though, it is the doctors who sit in darkness, while we focus on the trial participants in the center. (The lighting design is by Jon Clark.) Lighting alone marks the scene changes, which, along with the audience’s perched vantage point, makes for a suitably clinical ambience.

“The Effect” is healthily skeptical about scientifically deterministic approaches to emotional well-being, channeling a dissenting tradition that dates back to the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s; its moral sensibility recalls Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The play’s revival is particularly timely as a new generation of wellness gurus have, in recent years, latched onto the idea that much of human behavior can be explained away as neurotransmitters or hormones simply doing their thing.

Prebble invites us to ponder the implications of such thinking. Connie is initially uncomfortable with the notion that two people can fall in love just like that (“It takes work,” she insists), and wary of her attraction to Tristan. He, in response, makes the case for mystery, and thus articulates the play’s key message: That a world in which all feeling is viewed as a matter of chemistry would be a bleak one indeed.

The dialogue is deftly composed, and the ethical dilemmas teased out, rather than bludgeoned. This tautness of the writing, together with the strength of the actors’ performances, and its impressive visual aesthetic, elevates this play above the ordinary rung of sociopolitical parables.

At its heart is a deep and fertile agnosticism about the true source of emotional connectedness — a bracing antidote to the specious certainties peddled by the self-help industry and Big Pharma. Sure, everything is contingent, but when something feels real, it feels real.

At one point in the trial, Tristan declares: “I feel almost holy, like life’s paying attention to me.” Who are we to contradict him?

The Effect

Through Oct. 7 at the National Theater, London; nationaltheatre.org.uk.

POST AUTHOR: Houman Barekat

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