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Aviva Armour-Ostroff in The Effect.DAHLIA KATZ/Coal Mine Theatre

  • Title: The Effect
  • Written by: Lucy Prebble
  • Director: Mitchell Cushman
  • Actors: Aris Athanasopoulos, Leah Doz, Jordan Pettle, Aviva Armour-Ostroff
  • Company: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Run date: To July 30, 2023

Why do we fall in love? And how do we explain things like happiness and sadness?

Lucy Prebble, a writer and co-executive producer of the hit TV series Succession, attempts to explore big metaphysical questions like these in her play The Effect. While she may not arrive at any firm conclusions, she does make us think about the complex connections between neuroscience and emotions. What’s disappointing is that, after it all, our hearts remain mostly unmoved by her ambitious theatrical experiment.

Like the replica of a brain held up, Yorick’s skull-style, in the play’s most startling visual moment, The Effect is largely a cerebral work.

At a clinical drug trial at an undisclosed location, twentysomethings Connie (Leah Doz) and Tristan (Aris Athanasopoulos) have volunteered to be guinea pigs for science. Connie is a conscientious psychology student who’s currently in a relationship with an older, distant man. Tristan, a bit of a drifter, is cocky and charismatic – early on, he flirts with Connie over her urine sample. He’s participated in drug trials like this before, and he’s going to use the cash from this one to travel; perhaps Connie would like to join him on his next trip?

Both have agreed to participate in a four-week trial of an untested antidepressant drug administered by Dr. Lorna James (Aviva Armour-Ostroff). Overseeing it all, and hoping to strike patent gold with his bliss-inducing drug, is Dr. Toby Sealey (Jordan Pettle).

The two psychiatrists, it turns out, are former lovers, and their breakup did not end well. So while Connie and Tristan are experiencing changes in their dopamine levels with each increase in their medication – the main storyline explores whether the pair is falling in love or are merely experiencing side effects of the drug – we also get to see how the two doctors, particularly Lorna, are coping with their own emotional turbulence, sans drugs.

It’s an intriguing set-up, and Prebble raises the stakes by letting it all play out mostly in one location. No flashbacks fill us in on the characters’ backgrounds. Except for a coda and one scene where Connie and Tristan escape from the lab to wander around a former psychiatric facility, we’re stuck within the claustrophobic confines of the lab.

Director Mitchell Cushman succeeds in making this compelling viewing, even at 135 minutes.

Nick Blais’s set, lighting and props feel suitably scientific. Although requisite curved screens inform us, via Jack Considine’s projections, what drug dosage the patients are on, the most prominent feature of Blais’s set is a series of four wooden chairs. Each chair consists of various slats, which fold out or in to become benches, trays – even, when put together, hospital beds. The point of these, I suppose, is to suggest that furniture, like people, can radically change in this environment.

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Leah Doz, Armour-Ostroff and Aris Athanasopoulos.DAHLIA KATZ/Coal Mine Theatre

James Smith’s sound design and composition, meanwhile, have a poppy, electronic vibe to them that make us feel like we’re on one mood-enhancing drug or another.

And even the way Cushman has positioned the audience on risers on either side of the playing area makes us unbiased observers of the action.

But beyond that, Cushman has staged key moments brilliantly. That escape by Connie and Tristan to the former psych facility is illuminated by a single pinprick of light from a cellphone, and the scene becomes intimate and moving in a way that couldn’t exist in the bright overhead lights of the lab. No doubt audience members’ own dopamine levels rose during this scene.

And Cushman delivers an effective twist on the play’s most emotionally and physically explosive scene between the two patients. As Doz and Athanasopoulos thrash about the stage and hurl hurtful words at each other (all carefully, sensitively choreographed by fight director Matt Richardson), the director places the two physicians onstage, on opposite corners, lost in thought.

What’s missing from the script is a sense of how, objectively speaking, the two patients are progressing on the drug treatments. Early on, there’s a scene of Lorna administering visual, colour-coded tests to Tristan and Connie to see how they’re reacting to low doses of the drug. These are abandoned when the patients begin having feelings for each other. Also, it’s never clear if there are other patients in the trial. (Two seems like a very unreliable test group number.) That might have opened up the world of the play more.

But Prebble’s skill as a writer comes through clearly. When Connie begins to feel the effect of the drug, she says it’s like “hearing weather inside.” Another character calls antidepressant drugs “Viagra for the heart.”

And Cushman has assembled a fine cast.

Toby and Lorna aren’t well-rounded as characters, but Pettle and especially Armour-Ostroff suggest layers of emotional pain or self-protection beneath their science-minded exteriors.

Doz, who’s lately been doing more TV and film, has always seemed a well-prepared and contained actor onstage. Here, she’s allowed to let loose, and the result is thrilling to watch. Athanasopoulos, who appeared earlier this season in the two-hander Dear Jack, Dear Louise, exudes charm and spontaneity.

Prebble’s script is timely and smart – the young male character is named Tristan, after all, named for the mythical medieval figure who had his own run-in with drugs. Ironically, while The Effect is an easy play to admire, it’s a difficult one to love.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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