THEATER REVIEW: “The Effect” @ Dobama Theatre by Roy Berko

Through Sun 3/25

Lots of today’s science news concerns controlled drug studies done by pharmaceutical companies, as well as government agencies, to insure the safety and identify side-effects of the compounds.

Lucy Prebble, one of England’s young and up-and-coming playwrights, takes on that subject in The Effect, which won the 2012 UK Critics Circle Award for Best New Play.  It is now onstage at Dobama Theatre, in just the third U.S. production of the script.  It was previously done off-Broadway in 2016, then at the Studio Theatre in DC.

The story revolves around two young paid drug-test volunteers in a study on antidepressants, psychology student Connie (Olivia Scicolone, in her Dobama premiere) and drifter Tristan (Ananias J. Dixon, acclaimed for his Dobama performances in An Octoroon and Sherlock Holmes:  The Baker Street Irregulars).

We meet the pair who are staying at the clinic for four weeks.  They have just collected urine and awkwardly interact while holding their specimen bottles. We learn that Tristan plans to use his earnings to embark on a backpacking expedition.  We are never quite sure why Connie is participating, other than she often reminds of her status as a college psychology student.

As the doctors up the dosage, Connie and Tristan find themselves attracted to each other.  They and the medics struggle to work out whether their feelings are real or a side effect of the drugs.

In the dialogue, Prebble, who believes that “we are our bodies,” questions whether psychiatric drugs are all placebos as they only work at best for short periods of times and are not curative.  She also encourages thoughts about whether “chemical imbalance” theories are bogus in that, even with modern fMRI and scan tests, there is no definitive proof of what constitutes a chemical balance.

Dobama’s production, under the watchful eye of director Laley Lippard is in many ways better than the script itself.  All four actors, Scicolone and Dixon, and “old pros” Derdriu Ring and Joel Hammer, who play doctors, are excellent, nicely texturing their performances.  There is good connection and interplay between the young leads.  One must wonder why the sex-enactment scene goes on-and-on, extending an already overly long play.

The Dobama production is done in the round, set up like a hospital observation room, with the audience in close proximity to the action.  Whenever a play is done in the round, though the audience experiences it upclose and personal, unless the actors wear microphones, there is a loss of clear vocal sound and the ability to see facial expressions when the actors are facing “the other way.”

Prebble is excellent at not being overly wordy and presents ideas in a clear, non-complex manner, but the script itself is “never as convincing as the intellectual arguments in which its characters frequently engage.”

Alert:  Potential audience members should be aware that metal banisters have been placed in front of most of the seats.  Only the first row of two sections are cane- and walker-accessible.  If you need easy physical access, tell the box office that you should be seated in sections two or three, row A.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Though aspects of the Dobama production are quite good, and the performances are topnotch, the experience is not without angst. One leaves asking, “What does Prebble want us to gain from the script?  The ending, two incomplete conclusions, doesn’t help to answer the question.

The Effect runs through Sun 3/25.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, Cleveland Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association]

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