Theater review: Lucy Prebble’s ‘The Effect’ at Barrow Theatre

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl like each other and proceed to get closer emotionally and physically. But in Lucy Prebble’s highly unusual relationship drama “The Effect,” boy and girl just happen to be paid volunteers in an antidepressant drug test trial at a sealed-off medical clinic.

The situation leaves us to wonder: Are their feelings real or just the product of inflated dopamine levels? Can the doctors trust their results under these compromised circumstances? Then again, is the medication real at all or just a placebo?

Prebble, a British playwright, is best known in the U.S. for her dense docudrama “Enron” (about the rise and fall of the Texas energy company), which flopped on Broadway in 2012.

“The Effect” played London the same year and is now making its U.S. premiere under the direction of David Cromer at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre. Cromer, who rose to prominence in Chicago, has enjoyed multiple hits at the Barrow Street in recent years, including his acclaimed revival of “Our Town.”

The play is certainly timely, given the increasing prevalence of psychiatric mediation, and it’s built around an intriguing scenario. The protagonists (played with vulnerability by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson) end up second-guessing their feelings and acting out against the resident medical staff, leading to disaster.

“The Effect” is somewhat compromised by an on-and-off momentum, over-the-top gestures and the deliberately clinical tone. Nevertheless, it makes for a smart, unpredictable drama that asks a lot of disconcerting questions.

The cast is quite effective under Cromer’s sharp direction, most especially Kati Brazda as a concerned but ultimately helpless supervising doctor.

“The Effect” plays through June 19 at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., barrowstreettheatre.com.

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