Theater Review: ‘Placebo’

March 23, 2015 5:27 am Last Updated: April 17, 2015 10:08 pm

NEW YORK—The term “Placebo” has multiple definitions. “To please someone” is the definition offered in Melissa James Gibson’s play of the same name. However, the term also means “something that has no therapeutic effect” and unfortunately, it is this definition that best applies to the production now at Playwrights Horizons.

Louise (Carrie Coon) is a doctoral student working with a medical team on the human trial stage of a new female arousal drug. Neither Louise nor the test subjects know who is actually getting the drug or who is simply receiving a placebo.

The playwright seems to be making a point about the importance of mutual understanding and respect in any relationship.
Among those participating in the trial is Mary (Florencia Lozano). At one time she was a very sexually active woman, but she has lost the desire for such activities and is feeling it is not only putting a strain on her marriage, but also robbing her of a major portion of her identity.

Louise, meanwhile, has her own problems in the love department, though her difficulties are more of a communicative nature. Her roommate and graduate student as well as boyfriend, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), has been struggling with his dissertation and has grown very irritable of late. Part of his mood changes may be due to his recent effort to quit smoking.

Louise (Carrie Coon) is having trouble communicating with her boyfriend Jonathan (William Jackson Harper). (Joan Marcus)
Louise (Carrie Coon) is having trouble communicating with her boyfriend, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper). (Joan Marcus)

Jonathan is afraid Louise will see him as a loser if he can’t complete his project. He continually pushes himself to do so, while refusing every offer of help she makes.

Louise is also trying to deal with an ailing mother. Her mom’s ill health is perhaps one of the reasons she’s so insistent that Jonathan quit smoking. This possible connection, though, is never fully explored.

As frustrations build between the two, Louise finds herself bonding with Tom (Alex Hurt), another doctoral student in her lab, and Jonathan turns to an old girlfriend from college for help with his work.

The playwright seems to be making a point about the importance of mutual understanding and respect in any relationship. Gibson also shows how easy it is for people to fall into a no-strings physical entanglement when they’re emotionally vulnerable.

Sadly, the play doesn’t develop these ideas as well as it should—a problem that exists both with the characters and plotlines.

Louise (Carrie Coon) is having trouble communicating with her boyfriend Jonathan (William Jackson Harper). (Joan Marcus)
Louise (Carrie Coon) bonds with fellow doctoral student Tom (Alex Hurt). (Joan Marcus)

While Louise and Jonathan’s story has the potential to be quite powerful, it’s hampered by the performers’ lack of chemistry with one another, as well as the fact that Jonathan does not come off as sympathetic for most of play.

Additionally, Hurt’s character feels more creepy than interesting when first seen. Even after he’s allowed to warm up, we basically know nothing about him, other than he has a ex somewhere.

Also problematic is that the sequences with Mary feel more of an add-on than anything central to the main tale. Indeed, everything going on with her could have been handled in a few descriptive paragraphs, without her character ever having to be on stage at all.

Although Mary’s frustrations come off as realistic, since she only appears to pick up her pills from Louise, the character feels rather one-note; the audience is given almost no opportunity to learn who she is.

This is not to say there aren’t some good moments in the production. A sequence between Louise and Tom, which involves an impromptu relay race and a vending machine, turns out to be quite funny. However, one can pretty much guess the outcome of the scene long before it finishes. And a situation toward the end of the play between Louise and Jonathan alternates between the touching and humorous. Especially interesting is when Jonathan comments on the differences men and women place on the importance of sex and communication in relationships.

None of the high points are able to quell the feeling that the play is more bits and pieces than something resembling a satisfying whole.
None of these high points are able to quell the feeling that the play is more bits and pieces than something resembling a satisfying whole.

Director Daniel Aukin is not able to make many of the moments in the play really come alive or help the actors rise above the limitations of their characters as written. As a result, none succeed in engaging the audience for any length of time.

The acting is okay, though no one really stands out. Harper gives off a feeling of continual detachment and frustration, while showing many of the signs of a confirmed nicotine addict.

Coon does well as Louise, a woman trying to balance both a career and a relationship, as well as continually trying to please her family. She even comes up with a phony wedding date for herself and Jonathan in order to placate her mom.

Lozano is fine as Mary, a woman trying to come to terms with the loss of her sexual identity, and Hurt works well as the lab student.

“Placebo” offers some enjoyable and interesting moments, but the end result is more than a little unsatisfying.

‘Placebo’
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or TicketCentral.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: April 5

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.