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‘The Effect’ Off Broadway Review: Lucy Prebble Delivers a ‘Spellbound’ for the 21st Century

In its annual “31 Days to Oscars” programming, TCM recently aired the Alfred Hitchcock psychoanalysis thriller “Spellbound,” with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck playing lovesick psychiatrists. As one would expect for a movie released in 1945, the movie’s take on psychiatry is rather quaint, but not all that removed from the “Cinderella science” that’s put on stage in Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect.” The National Theatre’s 2023 production of the 2012 play opened Wednesday Off Broadway at The Shed.

Just as psychoanalysis is seen as a cure-all in “Spellbound,” antidepressant drugs are seen as an evil cop-out in “The Effect.” Just as a smitten Bergman is irresponsible for treating Peck’s neurosis, a smitten female psychiatrist (Michele Austin) can’t shake her past affair with a male psychiatrist (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) with whom she’s conducting a drug trial that involves two patients (Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell).

“Spellbound” is not one of Hitchcock’s great movies, but it delivers and it doesn’t cheat.

“The Effect” is not a great play, but it delivers and it also cheats. Prebble has written a sci-fi horror show, but even fantasies need to set their artificial parameters and then stick to them. Never explained is why two heterosexual patients of the opposite sex would be given an experimental drug and housed in the same room or ward (the play is vague on their cohabitation), but somehow this couple breaks the rules when they – surprise! – end up having sex. They also fall in love. Or is it just the effect of the drug they’re taking?

This production of “The Effect” doesn’t give us Salvador Dali illustrations a la “Spellbound” to visualize the patients’ drug-induced dreams and nightmares. Since Jamie Lloyd is onboard to direct, however, there is his usual brand of trippy effects, which can best be described as extravagant minimalism. Here, Soutra Gilmour’s set features a floor that throbs with a vast array of lighting arrangements, by Jon Clark. It’s reminiscent of “Saturday Night Fever,” especially when a huge cloud of smoke floods the stage so the two patients can show off their dance moves (ballet for her, hip-hop for him) while the audience is sent into a coughing fit. Major moments in the drama are punctuated by a portentous Vangelis-esque score by Michael “Mikey J” Assante.

The performances are uniformly subtle to the extreme, their faintest whispers amplified to the hilt (sound design by George Dennis). Surprisingly, Lloyd eschews video screens, depriving the audience of close-ups as his actors deliver their camera-ready performances.

What’s love? What’s depression? What’s real? What’s not? Or is everything just some chemical reaction in the brain? In case the play’s thesis escapes us, Prebble includes a scene near the end where the female psychiatrist takes a human brain out of a small white plastic canister and shows where each thought, each memory, each feeling originates in that toaster-size mass of tissue.

In “Spellbound,” an old male shrink tells Ingrid Bergman’s character, “We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of the intellect.”

What a difference several decades doesn’t make. It is the two female characters in “The Effect” that end up being gaga in love. Or is it just the drugs talking?

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