-Theatre Review by Jenna Dioguardi

New York: Melissa James Gibson’s new play, Placebo, now showing at Playwrights Horizons until April 5th, follows the story of Louise (Carrie Coon). She is a grad student in her thirties who is working on the double-blind study of a new female arousal drug. The opening scene introduces Mary (Florencia Lozano), Louise’s patient, who delivers a rambling monologue about her newfound sexual frustration and lost libido. Next, Louise explains how she will implement the study and experimental drug. Given the plays title, audiences expect the play to focus on Mary’s treatment induced escapades. This is certainly an amusing premise, but when Jonathan (William Jackson Harper) – Louise’s long-term boyfriend – is introduced, the show’s trajectory changes entirely.

Jonathan is a doctoral candidate, bumping up against a sturdy wall of distraction in his dissertation on Pliny the Elder. Battling writer’s block, insomnia, and a cigarette addiction, Jonathan remains shut inside his apartment, determined to finish his work. Jonathan’s journey, skillfully portrayed by Harper, quickly steals the show. There is conflict, passion, and intelligence driving his story. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Louise. She is hardly devoted to her research and hiccups in her relationship with Jonathan regularly consume the narrative.

Consequently, Placebo emerges as a half-baked script hampered by uncertain direction. The title is misleading, and fails to connect to what is – for better or worse – at the heart of the play: Louise and Jonathan’s relationship. The Sloan Foundation, in its partnership with Manhattan Theater Club, commissioned Gibson’s play. The collaborating organizations are committed to developing new plays about math, science, and technology concepts. Under this directive, Placebo’s central theme was required to be one of these three topics. In this case, however, the playwright is less interested in the science aspect of the story than she is in Louise and Jonathan’s fumbling relationship. There is no connection, metaphorical or literal, between what happens in Louise’s life at work and her life at home. The two worlds seem to belong to different stories, which, if considered in greater depth, do have potential to be two separately fascinating plays.

One bright spot: Gibson’s dialogue is clever, offering its fair share of comedic, well-timed zingers. The interactions are very now, the purest example being a scene that takes place in the hospital lounge. Louise and Tom (the quietly charming Alex Hurt) casually converse with each other while conducting more engrossing conversations on their iPhones.

Likewise, in a later scene, Tom remarks, “I like you, Louise, but you’re not a lot of fun.” He’s correct: While a lovely presence on stage, Coon seems a bit subdued in her performance. This flaw, however, does not belong to the actress, but rather to the muddled journey of her character through two disconnected worlds. All four actors give excellent performances – Harper’s being the most compelling – but the confused, divided world of this play distracts from even the finest of performances.

In the final scene, “I wanna look like I know what I’m doing,” Louise pleads to Jonathan. Stressed by their drawn out break up, she has taken apart their apartment amid her heart-broken frenzy to move out. Unfortunately, this finale does not thump on viewer’s hearts. Instead, the scene treads only lightly on an emotional pulse. There is no one to cheer for, and the stakes seem low. Placebo is worth seeing for its scattered sharp moments of cunning dialogue, and relatively well-acted scenes. Otherwise, the play fails to captivate anyone, be it the audience members or the principal characters.


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