Love, depression and neuroscience. You could say that's what Lucy Prebble's The Effect is about. The play, staged at the VSA North Fourth Art Center (4904 Fourth Street NW) by West End Productions is, as the playwright describes it, “a play about four people, in love and sorrow.”
Settling into the theater—as my playgoing companion noted, one of the finest stages in town; it's spacious, with superb lighting—we take in the spare set. Two beds are slanted on either side of the stage. A metal cabinet stands upstage right. Soon, the clever dialogue of the play starts, fired off by its small cast of characters, whose very existence is an inquiry into contradiction. Here we have Tristan and Connie (played by Isaac Christie and Pip Lustgarten) two twentysomethings who have been thrust into the sterile scene as participants in the trial for an unnamed drug. The drug boosts dopamine levels, which, as a side effect, simulates the feelings of falling in love. The participants' heart rates spike; they can't sleep, they're giddy. As Connie and Tristan's relationship progresses, we slowly discover the complexity of another relationship. The doctors—Lorna (Colleen Neary McClure) and Toby (Tim Crofton)—oversee the trial, though Lorna has her own psychological problems to navigate, a few of which is triggered by a fraught romantic past with Toby.
The clinical discussions of what is happening in the trial—and between Connie and Tristan—that unfold between Toby and Lorna create a strong contrast between the two couples. While Toby and Lorna are all about the head, between Tristan and Connie, all is feeling.
The emotional core of the play is questions that many of us have begged of ourselves, revolving around the meaning of love, how it can be quantified, if it is true. Because the love that blossoms between Connie and Tristan might be manufactured by the drug they are taking, the question of “Is this real?” becomes trickier than usual, and raises other questions, like, does it even matter if love is induced? If you feel it, it is real, right? In this way, Prebble's script takes heady questions and makes them accessible, and even goes for laughs, which the players get with ease.
The simple divergence between the styles of these two couples—head versus heart—sets up a conflict between them. The doctors offer the pedagogy of the play, the trial participants bring the philosophy, which offers the script great poetry, like when Lorna notices that Tristan and Connie shed their heart monitors at some point over the course of a night, she remarks, “I'm missing eight hours of each of your hearts.”
West End's production of the play allows plenty of space to ponder the weight of each question posited. While the chemistry—funny that we use these words to describe real emotion—between Tristan and Connie didn't exactly ring true for me, individual performances served the script well. Crofton's performance of head doctor Toby was particularly apt at striking a note of hateable male pompousness with a touch of pitiable obliviousness. While that might sound damning, it read to me as the exact right way to play the doctor.
The plot allows for big questions to be asked, though, as is often the case in theater, feeling trumps science. Fascinating debate take place both on stage, and likely after the show as viewers spill out of the auditorium and into the evening. It's not a perfect play, but it is a pointedly smart one whose musings, wit and those omnipresent questions, engage throughout its two-hour run. Spoiler alert: the questions aren't tidily answered here. That's the work that you do when you leave.
Catch the final weekend of performances of West End's The Effect, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, with a Sunday matinee at 2pm. Tickets start at $18, and the show has some mature themes—so those under 16 should sit this one out. More information is available at westendproductions.org.