Monday, March 09, 2015


Carrie Coon and Florencia Lozano
photo: Joan Marcus
I can’t stand people who talk during a performance. It demonstrates rudeness in the extreme and an utter lack of consideration for the enjoyment of fellow audience members. Yet when the man sitting next to me at Placebo, the new play by Melissa James Gibson, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons, turned to his wife and whispered, “this is one of those plays where everyone just sits around and whines,” I couldn’t help but nod and agree. (Though in the future, sir, please save your commentary for after the show).

In Placebo, Louise (Carrie Coon), a grad student, is assisting in a double-blind study of a female sexual arousal drug. Unlike Viagra and its ilk, which seemingly just produce a boner, the drug in question here is meant to engender genuine feelings of carnal desire in women who struggle to enjoy, or even tolerate, sex with their partners. At various points during the play’s often-plodding ninety minutes, Louise interviews and records the reactions of Mary (Florencia Lozano, excellent in an underwritten role), a participant in the clinical trial.

What is—or should be—the real meat and potatoes of the play is Louise’s relationship with her lover, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), a fellow grad student, albeit in classics. Jonathan frequently disparages his field of choice, struggles to find the energy to care about finishing his dissertation on Pliny the Elder, and, to Louise’s greatest chagrin, constantly flounders in his attempt to quit smoking. They go through the moves of a loving, interested couple, yet it becomes clear that under the surface, their relationship is as deeply lacking as the sex drives of the women Louise studies. This drives Louise into the waiting arms of a colleague at the lab (Alex Hurt), who appears to exist only for this purpose.

It’s difficult to understand what put Louise and Jonathan on the fritz when no clear indication of what they saw in each other in the first place is given. Their relationship appears to merely serve as a clever mirroring device for the placebo-study, which in and of itself also underwritten. Regrettably, the actors don’t offer much help in elucidating the material. Coon, so brilliant in the recent Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is consistently monotonous throughout; Harper comes off as the worst kind of sniveling academic. The only justification for their courtship I can come up with is that they’re mutually off-putting.

Gibson is a staff writer for The Americans, which is easily the most skillfully structured and written show currently on television. She also writes for House of Cards, which, even at its campiest (and it’s starting to resemble a night-time soap with each successive season), manages to turn out crackling dialogue. How can someone who writes so well for television deliver such dead weight on stage? Placebo offers no answer to that question, and little to nothing in general.

[Sixth row center, TDF]


Unknown said...

Hello Show Showdown!
My name is Victoria, and I work at a small theater in the East Village.
We would really appreciate if you could provide us with your contact information.
My email address is


Wendy Caster said...

Your email address didn't work...