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The Effect

Revival of Lucy Prebble’s intriguing 2012 play "The Effect" on love and ethics has arrived at The Shed’s Griffin Theater in a production by The National Theatre of Great Britain, in association with The Jamie Lloyd Company.

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Paapa Essiedu as Tristan and Taylor Russell as Connie in a scene from Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” at The Shed (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

British director Jamie Lloyd takes minimalism to the nth degree. Sometimes it works beautifully and other times it feels intrusive. His Cyrano de Bergerac (seen at the BAM Harvey) which removed the usual heavy period sets and costumes and added rap translation by Martin Crimp was thrilling as was his 2023 A Doll’s House on Broadway with Jessica Chastain in Amy Herzog’s new adaptation which removed the sets and allowed the acting, the emotions and the dialogue to take center stage. His Betrayal in 2019 with Tom Hiddleston, however, which used no scenery and bland costumes seemed like a stunt, eliminating any sense of time and place in a many-scened play that goes backwards in time covering nine years.

Now Lloyd’s revival of Lucy Prebble’s intriguing 2012 play The Effect on love and ethics has arrived at The Shed’s Griffin Theater in a production by The National Theatre of Great Britain, in association with The Jamie Lloyd Company. Of course, this revival isn’t quite the same play first seen in New York in 2016 at the Barrow Street Theatre under the direction of David Cromer. The intermission has been eliminated, some scenes trimmed, others rearranged, and much of the slang has been changed, seemingly Americanized. The cast which was previously all white, is now all black – which does not seem to change the play that much, although their being British might. Ironically, without the intermission, the play runs just as long as it did before.

Paapa Essiedu as Tristan and Taylor Russell as Connie in a scene from Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” at The Shed (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

The Effect is inspired by a true case of a drug trial gone wrong in 2006 in North London which used only unpaid male volunteers (which is usually the case in order to avoid fertility risks.) In the play, Connie, a psychology student, and Tristan, a drifter and trial-aficionado, are paid volunteers for the four-week test for a new anti-depressant. They may not leave the clinic and they must hand in all electronics including Smartphones. Connie is in a relationship with a married professor while Tristan has used these sorts of trials before to pay for his life style and meet women.

The other two characters are the doctors most involved: Dr. Lorna James who is running the trial and her boss Dr. Toby Sealey with whom she had an affair ten years ago when they were working elsewhere. To some extent they are opposites just like Connie and Tristan: she has had a long-running problem with depression and, not believing in the use of drugs as a cure, has refused to seek help. Dr. Sealey is one the stars of psychopharmacology and is certain that a cure for depression is nearing completion.

However, things do not go as planned. Connie and Tristan fall in love and break many rules in order to be together. When the doctors find out, Dr. James is convinced that their love is affecting the test results, while Dr. Sealey is convinced that their euphoria is a side effect of the drug. When the question of which one – if either – is on a placebo, the entire test is thrown into disarray. Has the doctor even been told the truth or is the doctor’s reaction being tested as well?

Michele Austin as Dr. Lorna James in a scene from Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” at The Shed (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Soutra Gilmour’s setting is a sort of empty runway with the audience sitting on either side. The other props are two black chairs at either end for the two doctors. Scenes are created entirely by Jon Clark’s impressive lighting which turns a portion of the stage into a white square, the rest being kept in darkness. Since Connie and Tristan meet in various dorm rooms, doctor’s offices, examination rooms, etc., there is no sense of place. The problem is that each scene looks the same as the previous one and the many scenes covering the four weeks tend to become tiresome without an intermission to break the mood. Gilmour’s costumes which put the doctors in all black and the patients in all white are equally monotonous.

Do we believe in this love affair or is it drug induced? Unfortunately, Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You; The Lazarus Project) makes Tristan a player (if that is still the word) so that we are never really convinced that he is sincere. Taylor Russell (Bones and All; Waves) is emotional but low-key in the typical English fashion so that we are never sure how involved she is. So too the doctors are very cool and British though Michele Austin (This Is Going to Hurt; Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac) becomes angry both with the ethics of the drug trial and Dr. Sealey’s behavior the more she learns. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith seems much more of an unemotional bureaucrat interested in the use of the final outcome and proving him right. In the 2016 American production directed by Cromer, Connie and Tristan’s chemistry was much more palpable.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Dr. Toby Sealey in a scene from Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” at The Shed (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

While the play now seems too long without the intermission, the drug trial is still fascinating as we watch the changes in Connie and Tristan as the doses are increased and they become more emotionally embroiled. This story investigating both the ethics of drug trials and our increasing dependence on drugs is very involving in a perverse way. The Effect remains powerful even in this version though the author overplays her hand in the final scenes making the play seems too schematic.

The Effect (through March 31, 2024)

The National Theatre in association with The Jamie Lloyd Company

The Shed’s Griffin Theater, 545 W. 30th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.theshed.org

Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (984 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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