"It's the Real Thing--Or Is It?"
It takes a while to figure out where the very wide, white, low-ceilinged, and realistic-looking room designed by David Zinn for Melissa James Gibson’s PLACEBO at Playwrights Horizons is supposed to represent. At audience left, occupying about a fourth of the space, is a kitchen area, while the expanse at our right looks like a combination waiting room-apartment, with a bookcase, a row of stackable metal chairs lining the back wall, a wooden kitchen table at center, a couch to its right, and a bank of vending machines in an upstage corner.The first scene, set in the kitchen section, concerns Louise (Carrie Coons, very good), a white-coated research assistant in her early 30s, discussing with Mary (Florencia Lozano, excellent), a woman in her 40s, Mary’s participation as a paid volunteer in a double-blind trial for a new female arousal drug called Resurgo. During the trial Mary, a once sexually passionate woman who desperately wishes to reignite her now dimmed flame, will be swallowing either the drug itself or a placebo.
As the play proceeds, we discover that the non-kitchen space is both the apartment Louise shares with her lover, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper, excellent), an office, and the break room at the research institution as which she works. The kitchen serves for all scenes. The play shares some of the disjointed feeling that this multipurpose set creates.
Despite the potentially engrossing setup of the opening scene, with its exposition of Mary’s sexual problems and Louise’s seemingly dispassionate response to them, PLACEBO has other things on its mind. Louise is a doctoral candidate, but her focus is on female sexual fantasies, not pharmacological solutions to sexual dysfunction; this is just a job to pay the bills. The play’s main concern is her relationship with Jonathan, a self-involved, insecure, classical scholar doing his research on “fortuna” in the writings of the first-century Roman scholar, Pliny (rhymes with "tinny") the Elder. Jonathan’s struggles to complete his dissertation (its ponderous title is never explained) take up much stage time. Jonathan, an insomniac, is trying to stop smoking by using nicotine patches.
In exploring the tensions in Louise and Jonathan’s relationship, Ms. Gibson instructs us on the meaning of “placebo,” a Latin word originally meaning “I shall please,” which was used during the Middle Ages to refer to professional mourners hired to serve at funerals. The implications of the word, which in modern times came to mean a harmless substance used for its potentially positive psychosomatic influence, and as a control substance in the testing of drugs, are woven into the play’s dramatic structure, but so subtly it’s possible to miss them.
Placebos, of course, involve an element of deception. Thus Louise’s 59-year-old dying mother is made to feel better by Louise’s lying that she and Jonathan are getting married. Jonathan, fighting not to smoke, keeps a pack of cigarettes nearby to comfort him, just as Louise, unsure of herself, wears her lab coat to give her confidence even when she’s home. Mary is confused by her recent sexual feelings and demands to know which she’s been taking, the drug or the placebo. All of which comes down to Ms. Gibson’s questioning of the meaning of happiness, especially during a scene with the wryly humorous Tom (the dryly convincing Alex Hurt, son of William Hurt), another doctoral candidate who befriends Louise. Tom asks whether happiness itself isn’t a "bougie" (i.e., bourgeois) preoccupation, since most people in the world are so concerned with mere survival they have no place in their lives for happiness. The rest of us, though, are ready to do anything we can to feel happy, even if we have to fake it.
PLACEBO had a strong effect on my guest, who found many moments that had personal relevance, but I had trouble wrapping my head around it. Its dialogue is often very clever, and its word play imaginative and sometimes quirkily funny; however, it's thematically muddy and makes a weak emotional impact; neither Louise nor Jonathan seem as though they're in a real relationship and the fluctuations in their love life (especially in the bothersome final scene) seem uncomfortably artificial; his behavior in the final scene seems unjustified, particularly when he blames Louise for doubting him, when all we've seen is the contrary. Fortunately, the highly talented, well-balanced, four-member cast, smoothly directed by Daniel Aukin, helps make the 95-minute play more watchable than the above might suggest. Whether PLACEBO is the real thing, though, or a placebo is for you to judge.
416 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 5