Theater Reviews: Paying Attention to the Goings-on Behind the Curtain, in The Effect and Dry Powder

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From Lucy Prebble's The Effect. Photo: Matthew Murphy

After the first week of a four-week Phase I trial for a dopamine stimulator called RLU37, the test subjects not only show signs of elevated mood and increased energy but have lost weight and, weirdly, grown taller. Also, two of them are falling in love. Toby Sealey, who works for the drug’s manufacturer, excitedly suggests to the lead investigator that they have more than a viable new antidepressant on their hands; they may have stumbled on “Viagra for the heart.” Is love a side effect of chemical activity in the brain? Or, as that investigator, Dr. Lorna James, suggests, is it the other way around? Is love itself altering the brain and thus screwing up the data? “There’s no such thing as side effects, Toby,” Lorna tells her boss. “They’re just effects you can’t sell.” 

That’s the conflict, or perhaps the MacGuffin, behind Lucy Prebble’s smashing medical drama The Effect, which opened Sunday at the Barrow Street Theatre. (An earlier London production won the UK Critics Circle Award for best new play of 2012.) I say “medical drama,” but neither half of that epithet quite fits. With more twists than a molecule of RLU37, The Effect plays like a thriller, as we follow those two test subjects, Connie and Tristan, through four weeks of increased dosages and their resultant (or causative) euphoria, horniness, and confusion. In “real” life, outside the locked ward on which they have agreed to spend a Spartan month without sex or cellphones, Connie is a practical mid-30-ish graduate student in psychology, interested in learning from the other side what it feels like to participate in an experiment. Tristan is younger, less settled, and in it for the cash; his outside “job” seems to be selling burner phones. The collision of their raging libidos often feels like romantic comedy, though it’s unclear (as with the side effects of the drug) whether the comedy is the residue of a darker drama unfolding or vice versa.

In any case, Prebble’s virtuosity means that those genre distinctions are moot. The story keeps unwinding in fascinating, organic directions, gradually taking in the investigators as well as the investigated. (Toby and Lorna once had an affair.) Along the way, the mind-body problem emerges in new clothes as an argument about free will and self-knowledge: If Connie or Tristan (or both) are actually on a placebo would that invalidate the passion they feel? Is love something we tell ourselves we are in, or does it tell us? The lovers struggle with this but, in the heat of the moment, decide not to decide. “We are our bodies, our bodies are us,” Connie argues. “There’s not something more.” “Knowledge,” Tristan summarizes, “is a myth.”

Easy for them to say, with their bodies giving them all the excitement they need. It’s left to Lorna to provide the caveats, based on her scientific cynicism but also on her own chronic depression. In the closest thing The Effect gets to a bald judgment, Prebble slightly stacks the argument to support Lorna’s self-lacerating contention that mood disorders are entirely psychological, the fault of faulty thinking, not faulty wiring. She alone is to blame for her sadness: “I swear, Toby, we’re going to look back at this chemical-imbalance shit like it’s the four humors all over again.” The play’s final images give that conclusion an almost unbearable force.

Mostly, though, Prebble avoids conclusions in favor of conundrums. This represents a big improvement over her most famous play, Enron, which was a hit in London but bombed on Broadway in 2010. In that dissection of the Jeffrey Skilling energy-price-fixing scandal, she threw a formidable arsenal of creativity at an obvious (and settled) target. In The Effect she lets her cleverness serve a less prosecutorial and thus more dramatic aim; discursiveness, a problem with many playwrights, is a boon for her, a way of accreting meaning while moving forward like an ice floe picking up pebbles. What started as a clean and narrowly defined “situation” play by the end leaves you feeling you have experienced a hefty chunk of human possibility and despair. 

In this Prebble is superbly abetted by the director David Cromer’s sleek yet passionate production. Working in a style all but unrecognizable from his earlier successes, including Tribes, Our Town, and several other plays at Barrow Street, he moves the action along so fast it may induce occasional brain whiplash, while maintaining a strong theatrical frame around the proceedings, except when he breaks it for effect.

Those effects would not be as powerful as they are without the top-notch work of the cast, including Cromer regular Kati Brazda, harrowing as Lorna; Steve Key, suggesting depths in the slightly underwritten role of Toby; and of course the lovers. The overwhelming attraction between Connie and Carter, as played by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson, feels both inevitable and uncontradictable. We call it chemistry.

* * *

Sarah Burgess’s riveting Dry Powder, opening tonight at the Public, is another clean and narrowly defined situation play. There’s no pharmaceutical trial in this one; instead we are thrown headlong into a private equity shop called KMM as its three principals wrangle over a potential leveraged buyout of a luggage company called Landmark. One of KMM’s principals, Seth (John Krasinski), has spent months bringing the deal to the table at a good price and with a plan for maintaining Landmark’s American workforce. His opposite number, Jenny (Claire Danes), argues that a traditional LBO gut job — pile on the debt, sell off the assets, move manufacturing overseas, ax most of the management — will earn the firm a few points more. It’s up to KMM’s president, Rick (Hank Azaria), to decide, and he has other issues to factor in. Shortly before the play’s action, on the day a grocery chain announced massive layoffs that resulted from a previous KMM gut job, Rick was busy hosting his wretchedly excessful eighties-style engagement party. Though accounts of the party were exaggerated — it featured just one elephant, not two — KMM became the subject of protests, investor unrest, and derisive editorials, even in The Wall Street Journal. “The media is portraying me as an unprecedented asshole,” Rick complains. 

However many pachyderms, Dry Powder probably understates the vulgarity of such latter-day, hyperentitled masters of the universe. (Recall, for instance, the vodka-pissing ice sculptures with which Tyco fraudster Dennis Kozlowski entertained guests at his wife’s fortieth birthday party in 2001.) Rick is presented to us as a relatively unshowy guy, whose momentary ostentation was merely uxorious. In any case, Burgess is less interested in the vulgarity of the LBO kings than in their vulturity, and in the twisted philosophy that enables it. As Jenny explains it in a talk she’s planning for a business-school class:

Nobody is saying free enterprise is perfect. Sometimes it isn’t very nice, especially to the weak. But, free enterprise is fair. It asks nothing of you but that you show up and join the competition. That’s not imperialistic, that’s not corrupt, that’s not racist, that’s not sexist. That’s beautiful. 

As the play examines this astonishing conceit there can be no question of where the author stands (or, for that matter, of where the Public Theater does in producing it). The result can feel a bit programmatic, like a fable in which animals stand for values. The vulture, you know from the start, will never be right. Indeed, Burgess has divvied up between Jenny and Seth all of the worst and best qualities — well, the worst and less worse qualities — of the kleptocracy, and then buttoned them on so tight that they verge on caricature. Jenny does not merely speak up for capitalism but exemplifies it as a warped personality trait; she has no normal feelings and steals any advantage she can in order to win her arguments. (She even mocks Seth for attending a “second-tier Ivy” — Yale — and for scoring ten points below her on the GMATs.) In kind, Seth retorts that Jenny is a vampire, a “token hire with sociopathic tendencies.” And though the play stacks the deck so that Seth seems to be the nice guy, he isn’t really much of one beyond the natural niceness of Krasinski. Just like the others, Seth has made his career by destroying other businesses, and has spent part of the proceeds on a yacht obnoxiously called (after a catchphrase on The Wire) the Omar Coming

I can accept as reasonable, or at least as plausible and theatrical, that in this environment even the intended victim of the firm’s machinations might himself be corruptible. What is troubling about Dry Powder dramaturgically is that almost none of its crises or challenges arise from character. Rather, they arise from externally induced plot developments we are told of after the fact. (More than once, Rick changes his mind about the Landmark deal, not because of moral qualms but because of business information he receives on his cell phone.) This gives the play a kind of presentational Greek quality, not unlike, from the other side of the political spectrum, David Mamet’s China Doll, which asked us to sympathize with the super-rich for the awful burdens democracy puts on them. And though the agenda here is much more agreeable to its likely audience, it is hardly more dramatic. The characters always do what you would expect them to, except when suddenly, because the playwright needs a surprise or a climax, they simply do the opposite.

That Dry Powder — the title refers to uninvested capital — is nevertheless a fully engrossing and entertaining play is a testament to Burgess’s terrific dialogue and to the beautifully paced and acted production. No surprise that the director Thomas Kail, who managed to keep the six hours of material in Hamilton to under three, runs a tight, shipshape staging here. (The show lasts 95 minutes, without intermission.) If the in-the-round configuration of the Public’s Martinson Hall sometimes means you can’t see the face of the actor who’s speaking, this is not the kind of work where that could cause confusion. Nor are the characterizations offered by Krasinski, Danes, and Azaria (as well as by Sanjit De Silva, excellent in a smaller role) anything less than brutally clear and distinct. Danes is especially coherent in her character’s awfulness, even finding a route to humor in a figure who, as written, is barely human. If only the excesses of our beautiful free-enterprise system were as amenable to correction as a promising young playwright’s!

The Effect is at the Barrow Street Theatre through June 19.
Dry Powder is at the Public Theater through May 1.