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‘Effect’ raises timely questions

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “The Effect,” a new play by Lucy Prebble, brilliantly dissects the psycho-pharmacological revolution, as it narrows its surgical gaze on a drug experiment conducted at a pharmaceutical corporation where two young people have volunteered to test the effects of a new antidepressant.

This timely play is receiving its Southwest premiere at West End Productions, ably directed by Joe Feldman and brilliantly performed by an ensemble of four.

The play poses some very interesting questions. Connie and Tristan, the young volunteers, fall in love. But is it the drugs, which increase dopamine levels, or would they have fallen in love anyway? If behavior can be induced by drug consumption, are the individuals responsible for what they do under the influence of the drug? Are we just the results of chemical interactions in our brains or is there something irreducible about a human being?

While the play initially shines a light on the humanity of the young volunteers, it turns out that doctors are human, too. Dr. Lorna James slowly drops her professional demeanor and reveals a very troubled person. The scenes with her and Dr. Toby Sealy are subtly imbued with something more than mere shoptalk, and we eventually learn – if we don’t suspect immediately – that the two have a history outside their professional relationship. This is a neat counterpoint to the other couple, but without the volatility (initially, at least).

The heart of the play and what makes “The Effect” so compulsively watchable is the relationship between Connie and Tristan. The two actors, Pip Lustgarten and Isaac Christie, are outstanding; both manifest vulnerability and anxiety in equal measure, as well as all the other erratic emotions that accompany falling in love – or drug-fueled inflated dopamine levels. The montage love scene that closes the first act is stunning in its effect, produced perhaps as much by the lighting design as by the actors’ talent.

Colleen McClure plays Dr. James with immovable stolidity for three quarters of the play before revealing a completely different side to her personality. It turns out she is not merely a mouthpiece for some of the playwright’s ideas about the medical health industry, but an integral component of the emotional heart of the play.

Set and lighting designer Pete Parkin adroitly captures the clinical feel of an experimental lab, with the rapid light changes a metaphor for the volatility of the human brain. Supertitles projected against the back wall invite the audience to feel as though they are voyeurs at an alternately sterile clinic and house of love.

In an allusion to the outdated medical science of the Renaissance, Dr. James remarks that someday “we’re going to look back on this chemical imbalance stuff like it’s the four humours.” Perhaps she’s right, but in the meantime we will keep pouring drugs into people’s brains and keep being surprised when more and more behavioral anomalies plague our society.

“The Effect” is playing through March 25 at the VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 Fourth NW, Albuquerque. Go to westendproductions.org or call 410-8524 for reservations.

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