The setting for Lucy Prebble’s The Effect is simple and stark.
The audience at the Barrow Street Theatre, in New York’s Greenwich Village, observes the interior of a clinic, where two attractive young people, Connie Hall (Susannah Flood) and Tristan Frey (Carter Hudson), have come to take part in a trial of an anti-depressant superdrug.
Connie and Tristan are immediately attracted to one another; but the question they face is, is their attraction natural or chemically influenced and enhanced by whatever drug regimens they are ingesting?
Their relationship is contrasted by the one between two of the medical staff, Dr, Lorna James (Kati Brazda) and Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key), who are, or were, more than just colleagues—and who now ward off such tender and flirty reminiscences with talk of what belies their patients’ brain impulses.
If Connie and Tristan wonder if their love is for real, the two doctors must ask themselves whether what they are doing is ethical and humane, and contrast the knowledge they have of the human mind set against their own frailties of head and heart.
The director David Cromer makes a compelling emotional and physical landscape from Barrow Street’s wee stage, itself ingeniously designed and furnished by Marsha Ginsberg and lit by Tyler Micoleau.
The young lovers, as they get more dosed up, remind you of gamboling-through-woodland, flirting, cute-talk spouting young lovers in Shakespeare.
Here, the added twist is they know they shouldn’t, because what can they believe is true, or a true emotion? Tristan is more willing to go for it than Connie is, not least because she has a boyfriend. But on they flirt, and more, convinced that whatever they are feeling is bigger than the drugs.
One night they discover an abandoned mental hospital. The mural on the wall of the old asylum is of a bucolic rural scene, and the young couple wonders why it was painted. And then they are discovered by Dr. James, who is furious: by acting on their emotions, they are imperiling the scientific enquiry into those feelings’ genesis.
There are key twists and turns in the plot, which shall go unmentioned here, but woven into these mechanics Prebble interrogates, both lightly and with moving, witty depth, what love means.
Tristan cannot believe that what he is feeling is anything less than perfectly natural and right, while the woman is more cautious. But then she gives into whatever she is feeling.
Alongside this pulsating romantic dance, the emotional travails of the two medical staff appear a little slighter: They connected years before at a conference, and while we are initially led to believe it profoundly affected her more than he, that proves not to be as clear cut either.
In the confines of this one hour-and-fifty minute play, it is not just the gestation or blooming of love and feeling that is examined, but also how both can be snuffed out, and once snuffed out, what trace elements remain.
By the end, we see love tested in ways we couldn’t have imagined for both sets of couples—Prebble cleverly sketching an entire and convincing love story—in all its contours and shades, for all four characters.
But it is not just love that is deconstructed here, but also psychology, depression, what makes our minds what they are, the physiology and eternal mystery of our brains. At one stage, Dr. James stands center stage and very simply addresses us in a monologue, while holding a brain.
It is not big, it is a doughy, unprepossessing lump, yet with just one finger she ranges over its surface to illustrate the areas that govern thoughts, both quotidian (liking meringue) and profound (I want to die), and the contrary, life-giving impulse—just do one thing at a time, you can get through this—when assailed by the most negative thoughts.
It may seem strange that a play, written so sparely and directed without overt flourish, should be so pleasurably rich and challenging, but The Effect is a profound and beautiful play about love and feeling: their creation, endurance, and incalculable costs.
Prebble’s play is also a thoroughly engrossing examination of what comprises our fragile, fascinating minds. Both a lesson in love and psychology, you may leave it with your head held—very tenderly—in your hands.
The Effect is at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., New York, through June 19.