The manic-depressive character who has a meltdown in “Side Effects” isn’t the only one who goes off her meds in this shaky mounting of Michael Weller’s two-hander about a self-sabotaging power couple. Little feels technically up-to-par in David Auburn’s mounting of this odd-couple marital drama, from Weller’s cliche-riddled characterizations of a straitlaced small-town politician and his capricious trophy wife to the drab set of a supposedly gracious home designed by a woman with artistic flair.
Joely Richardson is probably sick and tired of having her Redgrave-clan lineage cited above her own considerable stage, film, and TV acting credits (six seasons on “Nip/Tuck,” the upcoming film version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). But if there’s one good reason not to ankle this misbegotten play, she’s it.
Looking every bit the ravishing creature that her besotted stage husband refers to as “the most beautiful woman alive” and playing her over-the-top role like a pro, Richardson is totally convincing as Melinda “Lindy” Metz, the glamorous and intelligent (but oh-so-frustrated and unhappy) bipolar wife of a respected civic leader and the doting mother of their two privileged-preppie sons. Although Lindy’s creative talents must be taken on faith (she had a book of poetry published long, long ago), Richardson brings vitality and conviction to Lindy’s artistic temperament — even when it largely manifests itself in a refusal to take her pills (because they dull her joie de vivre) and a tendency to torment her uptight husband.
But what to make of Cotter Smith’s wooden perf as Hugh Metz, the owner of his family’s heritage bicycle factory and a prominent social figure in his Midwestern hometown?
Hugh is a control freak who micromanages his wife’s life out of fear that her antisocial outbursts, permissive parenting, and fuzzy leftist principles (not to mention her affair with an old flame) will kill his chances for election to the State Assembly. But while the character’s devotion to his adored wife is supposed to mitigate his tactics of domination, Smith seems terrified of getting too close to his incandescent leading lady.
Nonetheless, it’s hardly the actor’s fault that, like Lindy’s artistic talent, Hugh’s macho sex appeal and personal charisma are almost entirely dependent on performance, rather than textual validation. More commanding thesps than Smith would find such a commission daunting.
A bigger problem is that Weller (“Moonchildren,” the 1979 bigscreen version of “Hair”) has based his marital smackdown on the hoary (and scientifically suspect) premise that bipolar disorder is common to artistic types and that any attempt to manage it pharmaceutically is tantamount to clipping the wings of an exotic bird. Or, in the political context of the play, an illustration of how bourgeois society viciously imposes its narrow values on its free-spirited artists and rebels. (Storyline is loosely linked to Weller’s “50 Words,” which MCC preemed in 2008.)
But in the end, it’s the cliches that sink Weller’s defense of those artists and rebels. “How much of Lindy must I sacrifice to your ambitions?” demands this suffering soul, after one of her public meltdowns. Hugh’s Babbittry is even more tritely expressed when he defends his “lowbrow” social values against “spiritually higher-up types like you.”
The big question isn’t who wins this moral war, but what these adversarial lovers ever saw in one another in the first place.