Given that “The Effect” takes place in a controlled facility where two doctors oversee volunteers in a drug trial, to describe it as clinical would be entirely accurate, and also a compliment, since Rupert Goold’s crisp and clean production ideally matches Lucy Prebble’s writing. But that clinical quality isn’t wholly a plus. Though Prebble’s examination of the effect of pharmocology on emotional behavior is often passionate and disturbing, her neatly oppositional structure, characters and arguments wind up feeling too schematic to carry the play’s intended emotional weight.
Taking part in a study designed to prove the efficacy of medication against depression, Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill) meets Connie (Billie Piper). But while he’s single, amused and a chancer, she’s in a relationship and more circumspect. They’re not allowed to leave the facility for five weeks while their reactions to a drug are measured. But things don’t go according to plan, and as the drug heightens their sensitivities, their feelings for each other increase alarmingly.
Attempting to control both them and the experiment is Lorna (Anastasia Hille), a doctor hired by high-flying medic Toby (Tom Goodman-Hill). They are the obverse of Tristan and Connie, since we discover that they were once in a relationship together.
Although Prebble’s previous play, “Enron,” crashed and burned on Broadway, it was a massive U.K. hit, not least for its powerful scenes of fierce argument. Her gift for making what could have been head-to-head debate unusually dynamic is again evident here, in sparky scenes where Tristan and Connie spar with one another, and more so as the doctors’ divergent views become ever more explicitly and implacably opposed.
In the higher-stakes second half, actions have potentially upsetting consequences. But the more the strands are adroitly paralleled and woven together to illustrate the governing ideas, the more cerebral the experience becomes. Goold has tended to be a director far more interested in an overt display of ideas than in guiding actors to emotional truth, which is why weaker actors have often floundered in his work. But armed with a cast as strong as this, the material gets its best shot.
Initially, O’Neill and Piper steal the acting honors; their accelerating delight as Tristan reveals an unlikely skill for tap-dancing is a joy, the pain they evoke as their troubles seize them is impressively raw, and the complexity of the final scenes is played out with rare and discreet tenderness. But Hille, too, rises to meet the demands of her unexpectedly emotional role with beautiful restraint.
Goodman-Hill’s character only later moves into three dimensions, but that’s because Prebble, though attempting balance, has loaded the dice against him. It’s too obvious where her sympathies lie from the smug, insincere tone of much of Toby’s dialogue. Lorna accuses him of using the experiment to see only what he wants to see, and we know she’s right, since he’s wedded to the sponsoring pharmaceutical company. Ironically, that imbalance reveals the schematic nature of the writing surrounding it.
There’s a sense that Goold knows this, since he has persuaded his design team to do everything possible to increase the atmosphere on Miriam Buether’s environmental, in-the-round waiting-room space; the modish video projection of cascading digital data; the glowing graphics of body scans; and the sound of a heartbeat beneath a scene of heightened emotion. And then there’s the low bass hum almost throughout, making the in-the-round seating vibrate to add threat.
Prebble’s ambitious delineation of opposing views of depression — is it a disease, or a response to social and behavioral difficulties? — is welcome not least for its sheer theatrical sophistication. But her ultimate inability to deliver on the promise is made manifest in the two final scenes; adding a heart-on-sleeve soundtrack song (solo woman’s voice, acoustic guitar, natch) over the sad closing passages suggests either a director not trusting the material, or a writer’s failure of nerve.