by Cory Conley · March 20, 2015
Carrie Coon, William Jackson Harper | Joan Marcus
Louise, the somber and restless young researcher at the center of Placebo, is hard at work on the clinical trial of a female sexual arousal drug. But don’t compare it to Viagra. “Viagra’s purely about mechanics,” she explains at one point. “Whereas this drug aims to get inside a woman’s mind.”
And indeed, though Louise doesn’t take the drug herself, something has certainly invaded her mind. She recently told her ailing mom that she’s getting married to her boyfriend, Jonathan, even though there’s no proposal in sight, and if anything, that stagnant relationship looks to be on its last legs. Jonathan has been writing his classics thesis for the last seven years, spending his days craving cigarettes and lost in the academic haze, and the most romantic evening words that pass between them as a couple are “New Thai place or old Thai place?”
Upon hearing of Louise’s premature wedding announcement, Jonathan offers up little more than a shrug. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Louise starts to take an interest in her wry, sexy co-worker Tom, with whom she shares lunch each day in a charmless break room. Though more cynical than Jonathan, Tom is in fact much more fun, as proved in the play’s most wild and memorable scene that involves lots of indoor running and some supporting acting work from the vending machine. Soon enough, the tension created by Louise and Jonathan’s conflicting ambitions rises to the surface, and she moves out. It all culminates in an extended final scene where they hash out their differences in ways alternately romantic, rageful, playful, and fun.
I must admit that it feels odd to type out a synopsis sounding like that, although it’s a perfectly accurate one. But it makes Placebo, written by Melissa James Gibson, sound like a more straightforward evening than it is. In fact, there are several detours, including updates from an older research subject named Mary, whose sex life goes up and down seemingly with each dose of the drug. There are also discussions between Jonathan and Louise that riff on classical themes, including the origin of the word placebo itself (apparently they were designated mourners, hired to act like they care.) There’s even a moment in which Louise sings an extended Latin song directly to the audience.
Gibson has an unmistakable voice, crafting dialogue with a cadence and rhythm that could only come from her word processor. And her script has been brought to life with precision by director Daniel Aukin and the wonderful Carrie Coons (back from her spectacular stints in David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Broadway’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) as Louise. There’s also a marvelous set by David Zinn, and modest, lovely performances from William Jackson Harper and Alex Hurt as Jonathan and Tom.
The only problem with Placebo, to be honest, is that I’m not entirely sure what it’s all about, in a larger sense. As is my tendency when attending theater, I brought with me a friend who’s much smarter and more analytical than I am, and as we walked home, he valiantly tried to tie the play’s themes together, proposing that Louise’s very life is a clinical trial of sorts, and perhaps all the other characters’ lives are too, and that perhaps they each had their own “placebos” to confront. I don’t doubt that something of this sort is under the surface here, but I do suspect I’m not alone in finding the play a less than fully coherent experience.
And in any case, when all of the murky philosophical trappings are stripped away, Placebo is ultimately a rather polite play about the relationship foibles of privileged, over-educated young people. I have no automatic resentment of that. But more and more I wonder if, by focusing on such a narrow slice of the human experience, we’re cheating ourselves out of richer theatrical achievements. That’s a subject for another time. Either way, Gibson is a terrifically thoughtful artist, and it’s quite possible that with time and further readings, Placebo will feel less like an enigma.