By Tulis McCall

“The Effect” is the latest glorious transplant from The National Theatre in London.

Well, we could circle round and round Robin Hood’s barn about this title and its meaning.  The effect that the production has on the audience, on the actors, and within the story the effect that the experiment to which we are witness is having on the subjects and the supervisors.  It is a lot for all of us to handle.  So much so that five people walked out of the matinee I saw.  Not because of the quality of work – this is an extraordinary combination of talent and skill, but for the sheer density that Lucy Preeble and director Jamie Lloyd have coaxed into being.

The time, date and location of the story are never spelled out.  The external is not where we are headed, nor it is anything with which we need to concern ourselves. We are taking the local train, the milk run, into the interior of these characters and, I daresay, ourselves.

Along the way there are plenty of stops.  Wherever we are it is a place where volunteers submit to being guinea pigs in a drug trial.  This particular drug is being tested to combat depression.  It raises the dopamine levels in a person and thus heightens their sensitivity to joy and possibility.  As we meet the participants Connie (Taylor Russell) explains that she has been sad but not depressed.  She sees these as separate.  This is one smart cookie.  Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) is another matter.  He is street smart with drug creds to match.  The two are opposites that attract.  What will happen as they are administered the drug or the placebo?  Russell and Essiedu are a brilliant match in every way.  This is a dance that reveals itself step by fascinating step.

As that relationship rolls out like a spider’s web, the other twosome, Dr. Lorna James (the extraordinary Michele Austin) and Dr. Toby Sealey (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) sit parenthetically at the extreme right and left of this narrow stage plonked in the middle of the audience.  Over time, we realize that they are so still we cannot tell if they are watching Connie and Tristan (who never leave the stage) or if they are looking at one another.  The undercurrent is bubbling.  The lighting by Jon Clark is pure magic.

We watch what we think is the central story of Connie and Tristan only to be led into the relationship of the two doctors.  Then boomeranged back to the two subjects of the test.  Back and forth we go.  There is no letup; there is no surcease.  We would like to look away but we are not given that grace, that space.  That would be a lazy drive-thru, and Prebble is having none of it.

These characters are laid raw by the circumstance where they cross paths.  What is this drug?  Of what value is the trial?  Who is bluffing and who is benefitting?  When do we listen to the heart and when to the head?  And PS – how are we the audience doing with all of that?

The Effect has given us a huge gymnasium into which we are invited to play, engage, risk, contemplate, judge, experiment, and be our wild selves.  All from the comfort of our seats.  This is not easy, but “easy” is not theatre’s only job, is it?

As we say on this side of the pond – Bravo to all y’all.

The Effect  by Lucy Prebble’s, directed by Jamie Lloyd.

WITH Paapa Essiedu, Taylor Russell, Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

Set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting design by Jon Clark, composition by Michael “Mikey J” Asante, sound design by George Dennis, movement direction by Sarah Golding and Yukiko Masui (SAY), fight direction by Kate Waters, intimacy coordination by Ingrid Mackinnon.

Presented by The Shed and The National Theatre in association with The Jamie Lloyd Company. The Shed’s intimate 500-seat Griffin Theater (545 West 30th Street).  This is a limited engagement through March 31, 2024.  TICKETS HERE