Review by Tulis McCall

Did you know that “insurmountable” depends on your definition of “mountable”?  Well it does, does it not?  Stick around.  And did you know that “Placebo” means “I will please” and that this was actually a term for the professional mourners of the Middle Ages? Hang on. There’s more where that came from.

Placebo, by Melissa James Gibson, now at Playwrights Horizons is very, very smart play filled with observations like these because her characters are also very, very smart and have crafted their points of view with tiny little scalpels.  Listening to them is like watching a chess match on fast forward.

William Jackson Harper and Carrie Coon; Credit Joan Marcus

William Jackson Harper and Carrie Coon; Credit Joan Marcus

Louise (Carrie Coon) has a job as a Doctoral candidate doing research on women’s sex drives  her actual focus is female asexual fantasy, but the research thing is a paying job for awhile.  Her partner of four years and roommate, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper) is seven years into his dissertation on Pliny (pronounced like skinny) The Elder.  Turns out there was a Pliny the Younger who was not his son – but later for that.

These two are in a predicament.  Louise is on hold in her job.  The research is time consuming and monotonous.  Not to mention she doesn’t know what to say when the one client we see, Mary (Florencia Lozano) pours her heart out and then BEGS to be told if she has gotten the placebo.  At work Louise meets a sort of random co-worker Tom (Alex Hurt) with whom she bonds in that very dry I-think-your’re-cool-but-I’m-too-cool-to-tell-you way.  Gibson lets loose a torrent of dialogue about the testing they do and then leaves them idling in the pond of – is what we are doing worth it?  Is happiness a right or a bourgeois fantasy.

This is pretty much the setup and it plays out nicely over the next 90 or so minutes. Another serious fly in the ointment is that Louise’s mother is dying.  She has been sent home with an oxygen tank.  Louise, in an attempt to cheer her mother up tells her that she and Jonathan are getting married.  When she tells Jonathan this he pretty much goes along, and one wonders if he is just too in the trenches with his work or if he genuinely wants this life line.

Gibson has a voice that is compelling.  She makes you think while you listen.  Her characters are each dissecting life and their observations hook you over and over again.  They love words and their origins and meanings.  The First Century fascinates them.  They laugh at research sex tapes.  Vaginas are capable of a conversation with the brain, and are very complicated.  These are supremely intriguing people.

Congratulations for the casting here.  I have said over and over again that the scripts I read often do not specify race, so the characters could be any race at all.  And over and over again it is white people who are consistently cast.  William Jackson Harper was a brilliant choice as the man whose obsession was Pliny and all that he embodied.  He handled his character’s passion and frustration with just the right touch.  There was no mention of his being black in the script, just as there is often no mention of race when friends convene.  Also it was just plain fun to see Carrie Coon again.  She blew me away in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?  Her work is fine indeed.  Hurt and Lozano both brought fully formed humans to life and made it look easy.

The story, however, does not quite hold water.  While the moments hook us, both intellectually and emotionally, the result is a little vague.  Interesting as Tom and Mary are, they are not critical to Louise and Jonathan’s relationship.  Louise and Jonathan exist in a world all their own, and these other two characters come off as distractions rather than contributions.  Gibson seems to love her characters so much that she will let them carry on when they are not germane to the tale.  I never tired of listening to them, but after awhile I did question their relevance.

So in an odd way I ended up feeling just like the characters I was watching.

Placebo – By Melissa James Gibson; directed by Daniel Aukin

WITH: Carrie Coon (Louise), William Jackson Harper (Jonathan), Alex Hurt (Tom) and Florencia Lozano (Mary).

Sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Ryan Rumery; production stage manager, Kyle Gates; associate artistic director, Adam Greenfield. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Carol Fishman, general manager. At Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-279-4200, Through April 5. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.