Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Effect

West End Productions
Review by Rob Spiegel

Isaac Christie and Pip Lustgarten
Photo by Russell Maynor
I don't know what it is about young playwrights these days that makes their stories so enjoyable. This is particularly true with women playwrights. Maybe it's the fresh way electronic devices are interwoven into the characters' lives. Maybe it's the unembarrassed embrace of traditional narrative and plot devices. Maybe it's the return of likeable characters. I came of age when a playwright was supposed to work against traditional narrative and contrived plotting. If you couldn't destroy plot altogether, you should at least undermine it with irony.

Not so with young playwrights these days such as Annie Baker, Qui Nguyen, and certainly Lucy Prebble with The Effect. Prebble has created a terrifically well-plotted play with a brilliant premise. The two main characters are both normal and exciting. What they go through is plausible and frightening. The setting is a common situation in developed countries—two young people selling their bodies briefly in a prescription drug test.

Two millennials, Connie (Pip Lustgarten) and Tristen (Isaac Christie), are participating in the testing of a new antidepressant designed to lift dopamine levels. Dopamine is the feel-good brain chemical. Most addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity. A healthy brain produces enough to keep us feeling OK about life. Most of us experience particularly high dopamine levels when we fall in love. A depressed brain doesn't have enough—and thus antidepressant drugs are designed to lift dopamine levels.

So, what happens when you pour elevated dopamine levels into the systems of young test participants? Connie and Tristen are finding themselves attracted to each other. This develops even through Connie is in a committed relationship. The big question posed by the play is whether the elevated dopamine—which is increased in dosage over the course of the play—is the source of their budding love, or their love is genuine. Interestingly, the play ultimately offers a clear, unambiguous answer to the question. That's what I mean about young playwrights. They don't believe that authenticity requires ambiguity.

The play also features two coinciding characters, Dr. Lorna James (Colleen Neary McClure), who is administering this specific test, and her boss Dr. Toby Sealey (Tim Crofton), who oversees the larger testing program. While Connie and Tristen are struggling with powerful attraction, Lorna and Toby are still trying to untangle an affair they had years ago that has left Lorna depressed. Toby intermittently shrugs off her depression and feels guilty about it.

A couple years ago, I saw this play in its debut New York run at the Barrow Street Theatre. The biggest difference between the New York production directed by David Cromer and this production directed by Joe Feldman for West End Productions is the prominence of the two doctors running the pharmaceutical testing. The New York production was criticized for using the doctors to demonstrate the people-crunching behavior of Big Pharma. In Feldman's view, the doctors are nearly as prominent as the passionate kids. The conflict and past affair are not simple plot vehicles but compelling human stories. Much of the time, they're center stage.

Feldman's casting helps to underscore the prominence of the two doctors. McClure and Crofton are both powerful and subtle actors. And while Lustgarten and Christie do a fine job here, they don't outshine the doctors as happened in the New York production. The emphasis on the older characters seems a wise choice to me.

What the doctors lack as they reveal their hopeless and troubled version of love, works as a stark bookend to the promise and hope in the young love of Connie and Tristen. This is not just a story that questions the authenticity of love—is it drugs or natural endorphins—and does it even matter? The story compares that bright new love of Connie and Tristen to the jagged, torn, and brutally cold love of the older couple.

Yet both relationships reach similar closure by the end of the story. While this isn't really a spoiler, the end of the play is refreshingly not ambiguous and certainly worth the bumpy emotional ride that Prebble puts us through.

The Effect, through March 25, 2018, at the VSA North Fourth Art Center at 4904 4th St. NW, Albuquerque NM. Admission is restricted to those 16 and older. Performances are at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:00 pm on Sundays. Admission is $22 for online purchases; $18 for ATG members, students, and seniors (62+); and $25 for at-the-door. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 410-8524.

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