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A CurtainUp Review

This drug [Resurgo] aims to get inside a woman's mind— Louise explaining that the study the doctor she's working for is not a mechanical counterpart of Viagra

En route to her vagina?— Tom

Resurgo is trying to affect the conversation between the two— Louise

What language to they Speak? — Tom

Um. . . Vagenglish— Louise
Carrie Coon & William Jackson Harper (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's been five years since Melissa James Gibson first brought her distinctive voice to Playwrights Horizon with This. Now she's back at the company's handsome Main Stage with another cryptically titled play (she made her playwriting debut at SoHo Rep with sic and Suitcase, see review links at end of review).

Placebo, like her earlier plays, is insightfully directed by Daniel Aukin. It's plot once again revolves around a group of characters whose dreams of happiness and success are being challenged by day to day reality about relationships, careers and, yes, even death.

As is evident from the above quoted interchange between two of Placebo's four characters, Gibson hasn't lost her penchant for word play to punch up the concise conversations and reveal the problems and uncertainties beneath the surface. The smart dialogue raises some interesting questions about career and relationship choices. However, at the end of 100 minutes, this is a case of the sum being less than its parts thereby diminishing even the parts.

Though the play has four characters — five, if you count a vending machine that provides some quite funny moments — the main players are actually Louise (Carrie Coon) and Jonathan (William Jackson Harper). Both have passed that critical 30th birthday but are still in student limbo of long-in-the-works doctorate. Louise does have a job to support her own dissertation. And it's that job as an assistant to a full fledged Doctor doing a double-blind study of a female sexual arousal drug from which the play partially takes its title. The fact that Placebo is also the initial word of the Roman Catholic Church's Psalm 114.9 also comes into play.

Tom (Alex Hurt) another grad student and Mary (Florencia Lozano) one of the participants in the sexual arousal study are more or less human devices to support the main situation pertaining to Louise and Jonathan's relationship. Both are more interesting and fun to watch than Louise and Jonathan whose relationship seems in need of its own pill to re-stimulate whatever brought them together. In fact, the only thing that keeps you attentive to their one-on-one scenes is that you hope they'll make you understand what has kept them together for four years.

Maybe their being engaged in very different fields was a stimulant when they first met. But his being a classical scholar may be just too far afield from the trendy sexual studies that occupy the other three characters (Louise's dissertation is on sexual fantasy, Tom's on aural stimulation, Mary as a participant either getting the real thing or a placebo). His Pliney the Elder study has kept him in monk-like retreat for seven years and now, besides being stuck about finally finishing it off, he's in a funk about whether his topic is too esoteric to pay off. Louise is supportive but feels shut out from helping him.

Louise has her own crisis in the untimely loss of her mother. It doesn't take a psychologist to see that her lunch room meetings with Tom will lead to more than that lively and fun game of emptying out the vending machine.

David Zinn's set accommodates the play's back and forth between Jonathan and Louise's apartment and the lab and lunchroom of the facility she works. No change of props or other technical enhancements for you to know just where in the story you are. That workmanlike arrangement nevertheless made me nostalgic for the way Louisa Thompson, who designed sic, suitcase and this, seemed to tap into Gibson's unique story propelling rhythms.

The actors are all good. But somehow, Carrie Coon's Louise isn't quite the knockout her hysterical Honey was in the 2012 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf . In fact, if I had to name a standout, it would be Florencia Lozano. Too bad she's the least seen and developed character. Louise does have the one scene that really moved me; that's when, in a trademark Gibson touch, she breaks into the Vespers of the Dead Psalm that gives play's title its deeper, more emotionally nuanced meaning.

Ultimately, for all the ideas tossed out with Gibson's linguistic flair, Placebo leaves you oddly unsatisfied. You've learned enough about them to wonder if Ms. Gibson intended her end to make you think of a term coined by Jonathan's Pliny the Elder — in other words, take that playful key toss which looks like a happy ending with a grain of salt.

Links to Gibson's plays we've reviewed:
sic at SoHo Rep 2001
Suitcase at SoHo Rep 2004
this at Playwright's Horizon 2009
What Rhymes With America at Atlantic Theater 2012

Placebo by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Cast: Carrie Coon (Louise), William Jackson Harper (Jonathan), Alex Hurt (Tom), Florencia Lozano (Mary)
Scenic and costume designs by David Zinn
Lighting design by Matt Frey
Sound design by Ryan Rumery
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: Approx 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Playwrights Horizons 416 W. 42nd St.
From 2/20/15; opening 3/16/15; closing 4/05/15
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30 PM & 8PM and Sundays at 2:30 PM & 7:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/13/15 press preview
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