Monday, March 05, 2018

Dobama’s “The Effect,” more effect than well-told story

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 her “The Effect,” which won the 2012 UK Critics Circle Award for Best New Play.  It is now on stage at Dobama, 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 anti-depressants, 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 up-close 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.” 

The lighting, sound, projections, and tech designs enhance the show. 

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 judgement: Though the Dobama production aspects are quite good, and the performances are top notch, 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 March 25, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Next up:  The regional premiere of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie Award winning “Appropriate” (April 20-May 20).  The play’s catalyst is a book of old photographs, found in an Arkansas mansion after its owner dies. So what? Family albums often surface at such moments. This one, though, is filled with pictures of dead black people, with broken necks. It would appear that they had all been lynched.  Hmmm….