Theater Reviews: Flatness As Drama, in Placebo and Posterity

From Melissa James Gibson's Placebo, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus

The flat lives and flatter affects of the below-40 set have been the subject of enough recent plays to warrant a collective name; how about Theater of the Becalmed? These are generally sour dramedies in which the main characters are stymied and dissatisfied, as if the path to happiness were a stopped escalator they could not figure out how to climb. Annie Baker’s plays fall into this category, demonstrating its tragic potential; The Flick, her three-hour take on slackers at a cinema, deservedly won last year’s Pulitzer Prize. I do not mean it entirely as criticism to say that Melissa James Gibson’s Placebo, at Playwrights Horizons, instead demonstrates the genre’s tragic limitations. Like her earlier plays What Rhymes with America and [sic], it’s smart, droll, and beautifully performed, but so aesthetically anomic you may feel like pounding it (or yourself) on the head with a hammer. 

Stand in line if you want to pound the characters, though; someone, or something, got there first. Louise is a doctoral candidate whose research centers on sexual response; the work mostly involves masturbating rats with a feather. She is also helping to run a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study of a human arousal drug called Resurgo, designed for women between 20 and menopause, in steady relationships, who have lost their interest in sex. We are left to wonder whether Louisa herself fits the bill. She is 32 and lives with her boyfriend, Jonathan, a depressed doctoral candidate in Classics. They are clearly and sweetly well versed in each other, enjoying linguistic wordplay-as-foreplay that features the kind of seemingly irrelevant and arcane topics (the pronunciation of Pliny; the plural of clitoris) that often shows up in such works. But the only affectionate act we actually catch them in is a kiss that — as Gibson’s stage directions put it — “for whatever reason, winds down.” 

Gibson seems to be at a similar loss to explain why Louise and Jonathan’s relationship winds down, or why, for that matter, it abruptly takes over the second half of the play. Until then, Placebo has been content to let a series of amusing scenes accumulate without much urgency. These generally posit different variations on a theme — innocence versus bliss — that derives from the title. If one of the drug study’s participants finds her interest in sex with her husband restored, does it matter whether she is taking the placebo? If Louise pleases her dying mother by saying that she and Jonathan are getting married, does it matter if it’s a lie? (And what if it was a lie when she said it but not one later?) If Louise is unaware of Jonathan’s infidelity, or vice versa, is the infidelity “real”?

This last question is the one that tips the boat. As the facts emerge, Louise acts as you would expect her to, in part because you have been given enough information to understand how she operates. But Jonathan suddenly and unconvincingly morphs into an angry, irrational, emotional despot. In part, the mystery of this transformation is the result of Gibson’s having set him up as a shut-in who only seems to interact with Louise; key scenes involving other characters are omitted. But in part, the mystery is the result of the genre’s preference for underbaked plots, at least if the alternative is overwriting. Indeed, Suddenly Bad Boyfriend is a common character in the Theater of the Becalmed because he solves a common problem: how to gin up a climax in a situation that barely has drama. It’s worth noting that naturalism, even beautifully observed and actable naturalism like Gibson’s, is not the same as drama. Naturalism is a style, not an argument: a way of making a fist but not the punch itself.

And so despite terrific performances from Carrie Coon as Louise and William Jackson Harper as Jonathan, the play doesn’t really land. I’m not sure it means to; the director Daniel Aukin, who provided beautiful stagings for 4000 Miles and the Broadway-bound Fool for Love, among others, actually seems to emphasize Placebo’s flatness in pacing, tone, and design. (David Zinn’s set, harshly lit by Matt Frey, is strung out virtually in one plane across Playwrights’ wide playing space.) There’s plenty to like here, but as for passion, maybe the play would benefit from some Resurgo.

* * *

Posterity, written and directed by Doug Wright, aims for a more classic three-dimensionality. In it, Henrik Ibsen, near the end of his life, sits for the sculptor Gustav Vigeland, who has been commissioned to make the great man’s bust. I’m afraid the play is as inert as that sounds, though it apparently seemed exciting to the Norwegian government, which helped support this production through its Ibsen Awards. I wish they’d given Wright enough money to afford a separate director; the play needed more shaping — and a much better staging — than Wright has been able to offer himself. On the shaping side, the problem is the opposite of becalmedness; from a thin-to-the-point-of-nonexistent historical record (all that is known of the actual sittings is that Ibsen was irritable about the cold) Wright has ginned up a series of unlikely and yet overfamiliar debates over the permanence of drama versus bronze, neither of which is anywhere in evidence. Clichés are, though: Vigeland is a passionate starving artist from his spattered shoes to his wild hair; Ibsen a thundering Jupiter in muttonchops. That wouldn’t matter if the scenes were exciting, but instead they are tedious, consisting of little more than tossed would-be epigrams and pedantic demonstrations of the heavy research Wright apparently could not stand to waste. I can tolerate the namedropping of such 1901 luminaries as Munch and Duse and Grieg, but frequent references to cultural minister Klouman-Høiner and to Ibsen’s favorite flavoring for his Viking punch (it’s cardamom!) are way too redolent of the library.

As you would expect from the author of Quills and I Am My Own Wife (if not The Little Mermaid), Wright is drawn to the intersection of history and personality. (Quills is about the Marquis de Sade, I Am My Wife about the East German transgender icon Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.) It seems to me that in Posterity, though, the greatness of Ibsen, and the great deal we already know about him, were hindrances rather than helpmeets to his imagination. One does not wrestle the Father of Modern Drama easily to the ground. Nor, apparently, does one help him up; as director, Wright has been of little assistance in guiding the English actor John Noble (as Ibsen) and the Off Broadway stalwart Hamish Linklater (as Vigeland) to coherent performances. Still, they are luckier than the actors playing the smaller roles of Vigeland’s lawyer, studio assistant, and housekeeper, who are sometimes reduced to amateurish overindication to sell their goods. Also nudity. Now, why didn’t Hedda think of that?

Placebo is at Playwrights Horizons through April 5.
Posterity is at the Atlantic Theater through April 5.