Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons is justifiably celebrated for its impressive 44-year record of supporting American playwrights. So it’s awkward to be heaping praise on the sterling work of director Daniel Aukin and the four terrific performers — Carrie Coon (“Gone Girl,” “The Leftovers”), William Jackson Harper, Alex Hurt, and Florencia Lozano — in Melissa James Gibson’s “Placebo,” without finding much merit in the work itself. But that’s as it must be, because whatever the scribe (“House of Cards,” “The Americans”) was going for in this relationship play, the message didn’t land.
The focus of the play is a doctoral candidate named Louise (played by the incandescent Coon) who is interning at a hospital running blind test trials on a new drug. This unnamed drug has been designed to boost sexual response in middle-aged women like Mary (played with admirable honesty by Lozano), who is burning with the urgent need to know whether she’s been given the actual drug being tested — or a placebo.
As unruffled as she appears at work, Louise is riddled with anxiety at home. Her main worry concerns her youthful mother (younger than the women in that pharmaceutical study), who lives in another city under the care of another daughter and has just been sent home from the hospital in less than ship-shape condition.
Louise is also under pressure to be patient with and understanding of her live-in boyfriend, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), a nerdy classics scholar who’s put seven years into his dissertation on Pliny the Elder. Jonathan is given to meltdowns that seem entirely reasonable for someone who’s down to the last chapter of his life’s work, and Harper inhabits the difficult role as comfortably as someone who lives in robe and slippers. But when Louise tries to give her mother something to live for by telling her that they are getting married, he’s so spooked he asks her to move out of their apartment until he’s delivered and defended his dissertation.
If there’s a bright spot in Louise’s life, it’s her goofy relationship with Tom, a laid-back co-worker at the hospital played by Hurt, who is devastatingly sexy in the no-sweat manner of guys who have no trouble maintaining a two-day beard. The closest thing to intimacy these two share is the silly game they play with a vending machine in the hospital green room. But they speak the same elliptical, illogical and absurdly funny language, and their exchanges of non-sequiturs sound more like mating calls than the intellectual drolleries she shares with Jonathan.
But what this feeble love triangle has to do with the scribe’s “placebo” theme is anyone’s guess. Is brainy Jonathan the bogus love object blinding Louise to a more appropriate mate like Tom? Or is Tom the pretender, an amusing distraction until Jonathan learns to lighten up?
Director Aukin, who has directed other plays by Gibson, has an uncanny feel for the quirky nature of the scribe’s droll dialogue, which he has imparted to his smart and extremely personable cast. As for the radiant Coons, she was an eye-catching (and Tony nominated) Honey on Broadway in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” before she ever appeared in “Gone Girl,” so idiosyncratic language and witty word games are her stock in trade. She’s also unafraid, in those comic exchanges with the two very different men in her life, to explore those unspoken fears hiding under the skin of a joke. But she can’t pull a meaningful play out of a sensitive character study.