Is happiness a “bougie problem”? Where’s the line between really lying and just plain, you know, lying? Can intimacy be bought for the cost of a pill? Though Placebo, Obie-winner Melissa James Gibson’s new Off Broadway play at Playwrights Horizons (playing through April 5), is nominally about a drug trial for female-arousal medication, but it also raises questions—not always answered—of privilege, honesty, and the science of pleasure.
The bulk of the action focuses on the years-long relationship between researcher Louise (Carrie Coon, late of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Gone Girl fame) and her doctoral-candidate boyfriend, Jonathan (All the Way’s William Jackson Harper). Aside from a few moments of tenderness, it’s not immediately obvious what, other than comfort, keeps these two together. They’ve seemingly settled into the stasis of cohabitation—all shoulder rubs and takeout menus and thinly veiled frustration, with just a hint of the chemistry that must have brought them together in the first place—and as Louise deals with her mother’s illness and Jonathan nears the deadline for his dissertation, the distance between them grows.
Louise finds surrogate kinship through her work. Offbeat “lab dude” Tom (Alex Hurt, underselling the quirkiness of the role to good effect) provides distraction and a spark of human connection, while trial participant Mary (Florencia Lozano), a sexually frustrated wife and mother one decade removed from Louise’s thirty-something scientist, may well be the Ghost of Relationships Future. “I used to be happy,” Mary laments in the opening moments; “I used to be fun,” Louise later echoes.
Lozano crackles as the desperate-to-be-lusty Mary, and her too-short scenes with Coon, no slouch as the diffident Louise, are some of the play’s most arresting. With a natural grace, Coon wrings humor from heartbreak to create a nuanced, empathetic performance, and Harper pours intensity and anxiety into his portrayal of stressed, tetchy Jonathan. Unfortunately, Jonathan’s motivations are fuzzy, and at times, the character could be sketched straight from the insensitive–boyfriend handbook—in comparison, the less frequently used Tom is more comprehensible. That’s where things fall a bit flat: the dialogue is often clever, but only occasionally penetrates the surface, and Gibson’s story deserves more than the odd glimpse beneath the armor. However, the script’s funnier moments land, and under director Daniel Aukin’s steady hand, the cast navigates the multiple-sets-in-one stage piece with aplomb. Placebo may not be the wonder drug it has the potential to be, but it’s no sugar pill, either. B–