Are you falling in love, or just experiencing an intense dopamine rush? Are those two states even different? Is there a true, innermost “you” identified with your neurochemistry?
These are some of the tantalizing questions explored by Lucy Prebble’s imaginative play, “The Effect,” first performed in 2012 and now revived in a slick new production directed by Jamie Lloyd at the National Theatre, London , which runs through October 7. .
“The Effect” revolves around two teenagers, Tristan and Connie, who take part in a trial for a dopamine-based psychiatric drug with powerful antidepressant properties. At first, they seem to have little in common — he’s a working-class boy from East London; she’s a bougie psychology student from Canada — but as the ordeal progresses, a tender relationship develops.
Throughout the study, the participants were monitored by two psychiatric doctors, Lorna and Toby, who debated their findings: Was the drug compounding their subjects, or were their feelings organic? And if one of the trial participants was actually receiving a placebo the entire time, what then? Prebble keeps us guessing.
Paapa Essiedu — best known for his role in the hit TV show, “I May Destroy You” — is a delight as Tristan, whose roguish charm wins over the audience within minutes. Taylor Russell’s Connie is equally engaging as she slides from steely indifference to caring devotion, almost in spite of herself.
All in all, the couple’s gradual transition from cautious awkwardness to intense mutual magnetism is convincing, in large part thanks to the actors’ excellent chemistry on stage.
Things get messy in the final stages of the experiment, as the stakes and emotional stakes rise, leading to a full and affecting denouement.
The stiltedly ambivalent friendship between two middle-aged doctors provides an intriguing subplot. We learn that Lorna (Michele Austin) and Toby (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) were once romantically involved, many years ago. Lorna is prone to depression, but refuses to take medication; Toby, on the other hand, is a true believer in pharmacology.
Austin plays Lorna with a dry, matter-of-fact fatalism that, while somewhat dark, is more sympathetic than Toby’s myopic zeal. Holdbrook-Smith approaches the role with seductive excitement, delivering her lines in a gentle, sociopathic drawl.
For most of the production, the two doctors sit at opposite ends of the stage — a long strip, designed by Soutra Gilmour and sandwiched between tiered banks of audience seating — while their two guinea pigs occupy the center. As Lorna and Toby talk, they are illuminated by square, pure white spotlights and center stage is plunged into darkness. However, most of the time, it’s the doctors who sit in the dark, while we focus on the trial participants in the middle. (Lighting design is by Jon Clark.) The lighting alone marks the scene changes, which, along with the audience’s perched vantage point, make for an appropriately clinical atmosphere.
“The Effect” is healthy skepticism about scientifically deterministic approaches to emotional well-being, channeling a dissenting tradition that began with the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s; its moral sensibility recalls Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The revival of the play is particularly timely because a new generation of wellness gurus, in recent years, has latched onto the idea that much of human behavior can be explained as neurotransmitters or hormones that do just that. their things.
Prebble invites us to ponder the implications of such thinking. Connie is initially uncomfortable with the idea that two people can fall in love like that (“It takes work,” she insists), and is wary of her attraction to Tristan. He, in response, makes a case for mystery, thereby expressing the central message of the play: That a world in which all feeling is viewed as a matter of chemistry would be a sad world.
The dialogue is deftly composed, and the ethical dilemmas teased out, rather than bludgeoned. The rigor of this writing, along with the strength of the actors’ performances, and its impressive visual aesthetic, elevate this play above the ordinary tier of sociopolitical parables.
At its heart is a deep and fertile agnosticism about the true source of emotional connection — an antidote to the outlandish certainties offered by the self-help industry and Big Pharma. Sure, it all depends, but when something feels real, it feels real.
At one point in the trial, Tristan declared: “I feel almost divine, as if life is paying attention to me.” Who are we to oppose him?
Through October 7 at the National Theatre, London; nationaltheatre.org.uk.