Review: ‘The Effect’ at Studio Theatre

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When two lovers in life or on stage display an intense interaction of attraction, they are said to have “chemistry.” That elusive feeling may be more than a metaphor, according to Lucy Prebble’s absorbing play The Effect. Our notions of romantic emotion may have more to do with neurochemistry than we knew.

Just opened in a spectacularly immersive staging on the top floor of Studio Theatre, The Effect is a heady play about the heart, a passionate play about the brain, a rational play about irrational desire—and a mindblowing exploration into the biochemistry of human love.

Rafi Silver (Tristan) and Katie Kleiger (Connie) in The Effect. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The two romantic leads—Katie Kleiger as Connie and Rafi Silver as Tristan—do indeed have chemistry between them, so much so you’re likely to fall in love with them before they fall in love with each other. So natural and believable are their performances, it’s as if we’re watching real life.  Except we’re observing them the way researchers spy on lab animals in an experiment.

Twenty-something Connie and Tristan have been paid to be subjects in a clinical drug trial being conducted by two doctors, Lorna James (Gina Daniels) and her boss, Toby Sealey (Eric Hissom), who themselves have a complicated romantic past. Prebble calls this “a play for four people, in love and sorrow.” As Connie’s and Tristan’s relationship flowers and unfolds, Lorna’s and Toby’s resumes and unravels.

Prebble’s script—which is as dizzyingly ingenious as it is assiduously informed—was inspired by an actual drug trial that went awry. The dramatic situation she invents is based on real neuroscience: the chemical that floods our brains when we feel in love is the same substance whose insufficiency makes us feel depressed. And Prebble’s adroit story tests what effect increasing doses of that chemical will have the minds of two strangers. With enough plot twists to make your own head spin.

There’s much wit in the play, and the cast discovers it delightfully. Connie and Tristan joke with their urine specimens. Toby has a funny bit holding a human brain in his hand, à la Hamlet’s Yorick. And Prebble’s writing, which contains a lot of incomplete speeches left for fine acting to fill in, can turn suddenly, astonishingly poetic. For instance, when Connie and Tristan break the clinic rules and have sex, their heart-rate monitors come loose. Lorna, upon deducing what they were up to: “I’m missing eight hours of each of your hearts.”

Rafi Silver (Tristan) and Katie Kleiger (Connie) in The Effect. Photo by Teresa Wood.

There’s no way to describe the transfixing effect of The Effect without delineating the extraordinary work of the design team assembled by Director David Muse. Studio’s fourth-floor Stage 4—site of such impressive past environments as Murder Ballad, Hand to God, and Wig Out!—has been reconstructed by Set Designer Luciana Stecconi as a pharmacological laboratory. The concession stand is called a Bar-Macy, with drinks on offer in vials and blood bags and cookies in Petri dishes. Once seated, one sees a sleek, wide hospital-white florescent-lit space with an illuminated rim that makes watching the show feel like looking into a mirror—except it’s the other half of the audience, on the opposite side of the stage.

Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky takes us from chilly sterility to heated sex tryst and moods in between. Projection Designer Alex Basco Koch animates the two facing white walls of the space with an eye-popping array of signage and medical metrics as the two young subjects are having their vitals tested. And Sound Designer & Composer Ryan Rumery pumps in so much trance-like electronica and medical-tech effects it’s like the soundtrack of a hospital stay or a psychotic episode—and it’s stunning. All of it. Stage 4’s most knockout makeover yet.

Eric Hissom (Dr. Toby Sealey) and Gina Daniels (Dr. Lorna James) in The Effect. Photo: Teresa Wood.

There’s something fascinatingly contradictory about The Effect. It is visceral and cerebral at the same time. With Connie and Tristan, we get all the rampant passion and spilled-gut emotions of a torrid love story. With Drs. James and Sealey—in addition to their rueful review of their relationship—we get a running debate about the ethics and efficacy of pharmacological meddling in the mind. The play argues with itself, both unsentimentally and empathically. The effect is thought-provoking and poignant, and a must-see production.

Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.

The Effect plays through October 29, 2017, at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.