It takes place in “A major US city…The near future. Five years, ten years, fifteen. Depends on how quickly we advance.”
In the grating first scene we meet ”HIM” and “HER” in their gray apartment. They’re a cheery pair in their 30’s who are unmarried and have been together ten years. They are childless and have Rufus, an unseen rescue puppy that they’re crate training and whose barking interrupts a lot of the play’s action for comic relief. That the dog has a name but the couple does not speaks volumes about the author’s empty satirical motivations.
A representative from the pharmaceutical company Empath is there to explain this drug, Empathitrax. It comes in a dosage of six. After taking it, romantic partners have the telepathic ability to experience each other’s true emotions by touching each other. It’s not really a sexual enhancement aid but there are a few clothed, briefly simulated sex scenes that get sidetracked by dramatic circumstances.
Over the course of a wearying one and 40 minutes we learn that HER is on Zoloft and is deeply disturbed. She causes a furor by buying an expensive bed they can’t afford and that threatens to quash their planned trip to Prague.
HIM is worn down and increasingly distant from all this discord but still loves her. The two met in college where she helped him complete his thesis. The drawn out and unsatisfying finale is an upbeat fantasy that ties everything up.
Playwright Ana Nogueira has a facility for often arch dialogue but not much else. The play’s potentially promising sci-fi premise is undermined by its bizarre vagueness. Not only do the leading characters not have names, there is no biographical data about them imparted. Their professions and life details are never described. Most crucially HIM’s thesis is mentioned several times but what the subject of it was is not stated. Ms. Nogueira basically presents two ciphers that are difficult to truly care about. Ultimately, it’s all a hollow and smug exercise.
Thankfully there are a trio of talented actors who do their best with this talky and deficient material. Their energetic and focused performances elevate the tiresome prattling.
At first the athletic, affable and quirky Jimmi Simpson seems to be doing a Christian Slater impression as HIM. Gradually one may recognize Mr. Simpson from his role in the Netflix television series House of Cards and most importantly from his recurring appearances on Late Show with David Letterman as “Lyle the Intern.” Mr. Simpson’s presence is naturally offbeat and he fleshes out this hazy part with his engaging charisma.
The appealing Justine Lupe fearlessly embraces HER’s frantic restlessness with her lively and varied performance. Ms. Lupe valiantly soldiers on in depicting the character’s abrasiveness.
As the nerdy pharmaceutical customer service agent and as HIM’s hip best friend, Genesis Oliver is delightfully comic and makes a great impression in these two smaller roles.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s staging is smooth and makes this murky play watchable. The touching under-the-influence sequences are eerily presented and not laughable as they could be. The actors’ intensity helps a great deal for sustaining believability here.
Scenic designer Reid Thompson’s stark gray room, utilitarian furnishings and drab cityscape painting vividly convey the piece’s sterile environment. Grant Yeager’s fine lighting design crisply presents the chilly universe that the action takes place in. Expert sound designer Matt Otto’s pleasant incidental original music is tunefully futuristic. The characters are very well realized by Sarah Laux’s simple costume design.
By the end of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one is thoroughly familiar with the four characters and the results are shattering. Empathitrax is a superficial treatment of male and female relationships rather then a fully developed dramatic work.
Empathitrax (through October 1, 2016)
HERE, 145 6th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.here.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission