Monday, March 26, 2018

"The Effect"

The Effect
Lucy Prebble

Joe Estlack & Ayelet Firstenberg
A few too many drinks leads to a wild and sensuous night in bed together leads to follow-up dates and eventually leads to a wedding, children, and celebration of a fiftieth anniversary.  While not the way every couple begins their life together, who among us has not heard of such from someone we know?  Was the love real if it began in a drunken binge?  Would it have been real if it began while high on pot?  How about if the to-be couple fell in love while on a four-week drug trial in which the substance being reviewed under scientific scrutiny as a possible deterrent to depression also caused its recipients to fall madly (pun not intended) in love with someone?  Is that love real?  Can it possibly last once the trial period is over?  What is love anyway and how real is it ever?  Is it all a manipulation of chemical reactions in our mind?  Are the ‘deeply felt’ reactions in the rest of our body below the head to be trusted at all when hearts race, knees buckle, hands sweat?

Lucy Prebble explores some of these questions about love as well as many more about the ethics and practices of a big pharmacological company’s drug trials in her 2016 play, The Effect.  In a immaculately polished and mostly bare setting dominated by monitor screens full of scrolling data – all very Fortune-500, pharma-corporate-looking and created by Nina Ball -- San Francisco Playhouse transforms its stage into a highly credible test lab for a drug trial.  Complete with the latest in modern, somewhat surreal lighting bright and blinking by Kurt Landisman and a sound design that mixes metallic like chimes and tones one might associate with science and with science fiction (created by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), Director Bill English ensures with his microscopic attention to emotional details that we focus foremost on the late-twenties man and woman before us anxious to earn $2500. 

Joe Estlack, Susi Damilano & Ayelet Firstenberg
Ready to subject themselves to a month’s hibernation sans cell phones and punctuated by pill-taking and ongoing examinations by the lab’s doctor, the two leave all trappings of their normal day-to-day life and don loose-fitting, silver outfits with netted openings here and there (designed by Brooke Jennings) – all before the first countdown.  5-4-3-2-1; open mouth; insert pills; drink water; open mouth as flashlight probes to see pills were indeed swallowed.  And then wait a few hours or a couple of days and see what happens.  Elevated moods, increased anger, a little weight loss?  How about after a couple more doses of increasingly potent dosage and then feeling like “bursting, like there is weather inside of me?”  How about hair starting to come out?  Better yet, how about increased infatuation and a mounting drive actually to mount that guy/gal over there who is also in the test?

Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack are for different reasons brilliant in their depictions of the drug-trial participants, Connie Hall and Tristan Frey.  Ms. Firtstenberg takes an initial serious, somewhat reserved approach in revealing who Connie is.  We see her as just wanting to get on with the testing procedures, follow the rules, and earn her money to be used for further studies as a graduate student in psychology – with this experience giving her a chance to do some extra learning on the side for her future career. 

Joe Estlack & Ayelet Firstenberg
On the other hand, Mr. Estack’s Tristan– a guy who makes it a sideline career doing such trials as this to earn extra bucks for travel and play – has reckless, adventurous, and ready-to-flirt-at-a-moment’s-notice written all over him.  As standoffish and sophisticated as Connie is, he is quite the opposite with suggestive and smirk-delivered remarks like “Think I’ll go drain my snake” as he heads to the restroom.  Tristan moves around in Romper Room moves like an over-grown kid.  He eyes Connie from the get-go as a potential romp while still being just enough charming not to appear too leacherous.   Connie on the outside is not at all interested, and yet those wondering eyes that meet Tristan’s and that slight blush that suddenly appears in response to one of his teen-sounding come-ons are signs enough not to make her later, heads-over-heels falling in love with him seem too out of the blue.

The question of how real the love growing between them looms larger and larger for especially Connie (but hardly, if at all, for Tristan, of course). However, there are not enough doubts to preclude their beginning to sneak into hidden chambers to see each other and even to find the hallway route to end up in bed together.  In one of Director English’s most inspired sequences that is enhanced by Mr. Landisman’s lighting genius, one night’s bedtime adventure is hilariously told through a series of seconds-lasting flashes of a dozen or so poses and positions -- on, off, and high above the sheets – with clothes coming and going between the two-second blackouts with incredible alacrity.

Joe Estlack & Susi Damilano
But as the trials proceed, more effects of the drugs beyond just increased sex drive and puppy-love-on-steroids occur.  And as they do, the doctors involved enter more and more into the picture with their own backstories, entanglements, and moral dilemmas (or not).  Susi Damilano is stunningly powerful – as she often is on the SF Playhouse Stage – as Dr. Lorna James, a psychotherapist brought in by the drug company Raushen to run the day-to-day operations of the tests.  She is business-only in the beginning days, asking personal and probing questions with hardly any facial or vocal expression.  However, as the effects increase, her own issues mount – both those current and those from the recalled past.  Ms. Damilano’s expressions of doubts about the trial’s efficacy and ethics, her crossing professional boundaries as she identifies more and more with Connie as her own younger self, and her own emotional breakdown when the unexpected shit hits the fan in the trials – all and more are enacted in her Connie in ways only an actress as talented and accomplished as she could perform.

Susi Damilano & Robert Parsons
Rounding out the ensemble is Robert Parsons as the Dr. Toby Sealey, the lab’s manager of these tests and of the visiting Dr. James.  There is something not to be trusted in him from the first time he appears as he seems just too caught up in proving this new drug works, no matter what the reactions are of those testing it.  He is the scientist who is clearly the well-paid puppet of the drug company, noting at one point, “There are no such things as side effects but only effects we cannot sell.”  A past association with Lorna James looms ever large in their present collaboration, and its lingering and lasting effects on both doctors become more current as those so-called drug trial effects get more and more serious.

As the love and attraction webs between these two couples get increasingly complicated with more and more troubling questions rising as to how strong the ties really are, things happen in Lucy Prebble’s script that in reflection, if not in the moment, seem highly unlikely – even for an industry that has as many critics as does big drug companies.  It would be easy to dismiss some of the critical components of the story as so unlikely as to discard the entire tale as too fantastical to accept.  However, under the direction of Bill English and with the cast that he has assembled, the questions of love’s true nature and its likely or possible origins and lasting effects still prove viable and intriguing.  And due again to his direction and the wonderful energy and magnetism of attraction between Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack, the love story of Connie and Tristan is fun, furious, and fulfilling – no matter how much or not it is based in likely reality.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Effect continues through April 28, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


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