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Love Is the Drug: “The Effect” reviewed

Driven by four absolutely dialed-in performances, The Effect unfolds in a series of almost nightmarish flashes. The only objects on stage are two chairs and a white bucket—what it contains is a fantastic reveal—but rather than feeling free on this open stretch of ground, the characters are continually trapped and corralled by Jon Clark’s pulsing, slicing white lights. Isolated in glowing boxes, left motionless in the dark, or pushed this way and that by the hard lines between illumination and shadow, they play out a story that questions the nature and existence of control. Connie (Taylor Russell) and Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) are both participants in a drug trial for a new antidepressant. She’s a smart, nervous psychology student from Canada, living in England and dating an older teacher from her department (“He never taught me,” she tells Tristan with faint defensiveness). He’s a London lad at loose ends with a working class kid’s fuzzy but potent dreams of escape: “You trust me,” he tells Connie, “I’m going to see a lunar rainbow. In Zambia, there are three days a year where the full moon hits this waterfall and refracts the moonlight.”

As Connie and Tristan receive higher and higher dosages of the drug, administered by the dry, observant Dr. Lorna James (Michele Austin, who beautifully implies the perilous depths beneath the character’s professional armor), they become more and more drawn to each other. Soon enough, things are said, curfews are broken, and, with suspiciously coordinated timing, pulse monitors are removed. They’re in love — the wild, giddy, all-consuming kind of love that makes you feel like you “might never sleep again.” Or, is it simply a side effect of the drug? Can their hearts be trusted if everything they’re feeling might be a mere confluence of chemicals in their brains?

What makes Prebble’s play so affecting is the vast existential sweep of its central question. It’s not about a single clinical trial or a single instance of uncertainty: It’s a greater act of wrestling with how much we can ever truly understand about ourselves, with the mystery that refuses to go away no matter how many facts and figures we accrue. Is knowledge “a myth” as Tristan insists, or are we and all that we feel—love, rage, curiosity, joy—reducible to a series of signals and parts, complex, certainly, but ultimately comprehensible? “We are our bodies, our bodies are us… there’s not something more,” says Connie. “We are this three pound lump of jelly,” says Lorna, marveling at the brain. “But,” she falters, “it’s not necessarily me, is it?”

As Dr. James, Austin gives a gorgeously calibrated performance that gradually comes around to reminding us that love isn’t the only, nor even the primary enigma under scrutiny here: What’s at the root of the drugs trial—and, in fact, Lorna herself—is sadness. “I swear we’re gonna look back at this chemical imbalance shit like the four humours all over again,” Lorna fires at her boss, the organizer of the trial and, gallingly, an old flame, Dr. Toby Sealey (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, whose crushed-granite-and-molasses voice is almost distracting, and not in a bad way). “I don’t think we are depressed, I think we’re right. Shit is depressing. The world’s literally on fire and we’re calling people ill and profiting from it.” Lorna clings to her sorrow as real even as she doubts the veracity of Connie and Tristan’s love. But we’ve watched them flirt and bicker and slowly reveal themselves to each other. We’ve seen Connie’s fearfulness and anxiety and the sense of purposelessness that lies under Tristan’s cheeky, loose-limbed affability. Both Russell and Essiedu give superb performances: There’s something child-like in each of them, a fawn’s stiffness in Russell and a perfectly observed restlessness in Essiedu, who’s all dancing feet and shifting limbs, and as each one softens toward the other, their chemistry seems to deposit into solid form. We can see it in the haze that’s been pumped into the set; we can hear it in the continuous low thrum of George Dennis’s sound design. Suppose it is, in fact, just chemistry — a random byproduct? Does that make it less real? What counts as real—the machinery of the body or the messy, ineffable thing we call a “self”—and who gets to decide?

Prebble suggests that entire fields of study, vast swaths of our efforts and activity as human beings, are, at the root, simply attempts at control — little animal flailings against the great dark. If we can measure something, understand and analyze something, cure something, then we have tamed it. We can put one foot in front of the other because there is such a thing as order, and order is good. But The Effect turns a tender, dispassionate eye on that so feared and villainized shadow, chaos: We may not be able to explain or predict the horrific—a sudden, senseless loss; a brain that forgets everyone it’s ever known, or that bullies and berates itself to the point of despair—but no more can we explain the miraculous. Love, too, is a creature of the unknown.