What’s “The Effect”
of that “Waitress?”
by TONY VELLELA
A pair of thank-you’s are in order, before looking more closely at Lucy Prebble’s powerful new drama, “The Effect,” now thankfully in residence at the Barrow Street Theatre, in the Village until Labor Day. The first, presumably, has been repeatedly bestowed by her, on director David Cromer, for his matchless contribution to the life of this production. The second to my good friend Doc, a medical physicist, who accompanied me to the theatre to see this play. This is not to say that “The Effect” requires expert analysis to be understood. But it was a blessing to learn on the spot that all the terms and associated events related to early clinical drug trials and their related consequences were, in fact, accurate. [There really is such a thing as Transient Global Amnesia.] His observations only strengthened my admiration for Ms. Prebble’s playwriting skills.
At first glance, “The Effect” could appear to be a left-field take on the familiar meet-cute premise: two people find themselves thrown together under unusual, and somewhat unpredictable circumstances, only to discover they are madly attracted to each other. Connie and Tristan [equally remarkably portrayed by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson] have both, separately, signed on for a month-long experiment, confined to stay within the hospital, to test the efficacy of a newly-developed anti-depressant. They are under the guidance of Dr. Lorna James, [Kati Brazda], a clinician of a certain age whose identity centers around her work, and the drug company’s project manager Dr. Toby Sealey, [Steve Key], an attractive careerist aware of his ability to have most women of any age find him attractive. From the get-go, the rigid protocols that must be observed, to insure that the results have merit, clash with the participants’ personalities, though in different ways.
Because the intention of the trial is to gauge moods, to observe the onset of, or absence of depression, and to note changes in responses as dosages are increased, how Connie and Tristan react, not just individually, but in relation to each other, lays out a framework for what the play might explore. Connie, and even to a certain extent, Dr. Lorna, are quick to see Tristan’s playful, flirtatious behavior, and he is just as quick to deny its conscious practice. When Tristan proposes, after only a matter of days, that they embark on a travel adventure together when the trial ends, Connie sees it as another type of flirtation, until she begins to develop ‘feelings’ for him, despite being in a relationship with an older man she claims makes her ‘happy.’ Tristan challenges that. And not too much later, she acknowledges a growing attraction to him, and the confusion it has caused in her. Wary that it is the drug that has altered her ability to perceive her true feelings, she pushes Dr. Lorna into having an adult, woman-to-woman rather than doctor-to-patient discussion about these impulses. When the doctor hears that Connie has a relationship to go home to, regardless of how stable it may be, and that the attraction to Tristan poses a real threat to that relationship, the doctor allows herself to reveal a similar episode in her life that involved a short-term affair that played out at a medical conference, and her regret that she did not have either the courage or the correct perception to end it, and instead, allow it to surface again, from time to time. Apart from Connie’s knowledge, we learn that the doctor’s sometime lover is/was her boss at the clinic, Dr. Sealey, and further, that Dr. Lorna herself had battled her own version of depression because of the ongoing affair.
And what of Tristan? He continues to prod and nudge Connie, to wear away at her sense of certainty that her current relationship should be based on fidelity, and to use his quirky, almost childlike at times approaches to their time together finally to unleash floods of passion, sexual and emotional. Discovered by the doctors, they promise to end it, as it threatens to contaminate the trial. It does not end.
As the thrusting-and-parrying between Tristan and Connie resume, she discovers that one of them is taking a placebo – the ‘control’ factor common to these types of experiments. The deeper question now erupts into the open – who is feeling what, because of the effects, or side effects of the drug, which is known to elevate dopamine levels, which is known to stimulate the euphoria and peaceful, harmonious state of mind often associated with the earliest stages of falling in love with someone. When she reveals the placebo information to him, it ignites the level of intense challenging of motivations, the exhausting parsing of words carelessly chosen, the calling into question the very nature of their natures. At times, the interplay between these two matches the verbal batterings that have rarely been seen and heard in a serious contemporary play, [which is to say: well-written], outside the living room of George and Martha [“Sad. Sad. Sad.”].
Both women, independently, arrive at a crisis point, forced to confront situations that they cannot guarantee they are viewing objectively, or that have not been manipulated without their knowledge. Forced again to share what she may know about the overall situation with Connie, Dr. Lorna states bluntly about drug trials, and drugs in general: “There are no side-effects. There are only effects.” In this case, because of the subjective nature of depression and related mental illnesses, measuring success can be difficult. And because of the [secret] relationship between the doctors, between Dr. Lorna and her bouts with depression, and the danger of emotional attachment or bias seeping into the trials, vital issues concerning ethics in such situations are dramatized in a remarkably accessible manner.
And overall, the effect of this masterful work is to expose the fallacies in the assumptions made about trials like this, and to prompt a stark warning about how reliable anyone can be when trying to answer the question “How do I feel now?”
One thing is certain, for those of us who approach the prospect of seeing a new film-to-stage-musical transfer: they can be tricky properties. One of the most anticipated, now on view at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is “Waitress,” and despite some carping from the sidelines, it accomplishes what most new musicals fail to deliver – it’s a break-out-the-smiles little gem of a show. Based upon the 2007 indie motion picture of the same name, written, directed and starring Adrienne Shelly, “Waitress” is a textbook example of teamwork. Jessie Nelson [book], Sara Bareilles [music and lyrics] and Diane Paulus [director] each brought their strengths to the project, with Paulus integrating all the elements with her usual unique approach to any material.
Jenna is unhappily married to a serially unemployed wife-batterer. She finds refuge in her work making up new recipes for, and then baking pies for the diner where she works, and where she doubles as one of the table-serving waitresses, whose tips are snatched away as soon as she gets home. The discovery that she’s pregnant forces a deeper need to re-examine her circumstances. And despite all these complications, Jenna is a vital, engaging, serious, multi-layered character, thanks not only to the above-mentioned team, but because she is brought to life by the remarkable Jessie Mueller, Tony Award-winner for the 2014 bio-tuner “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical.” Structured with a nod to Hollywood Golden-Age musicals, it, too, features the central [female] character having one or two female friends, in this case, fellow waitresses Becky [the powerfully-voiced Keala Settle] and Dawn [the endearingly meek Kimiko Glenn]. A few numbers in Act One provide the trio with an opportunity to deliver silky harmonizing, a la The Andrews Sisters. [Google them.]
And the three-waitress, gruff-but-kindhearted diner owner premise bears more than a little resemblance to the Martin Scorcese picture “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More,” starring Ellen Burstyn [whose character also was a singer!], and later, the Linda Lavin T-V sitcom, “Alice.” Each of them gets a spotlight number – Becky’s “I Didn’t Plan It,” gloriously riffing on her reasoning when the secret affair she’s been hiding is discovered, and Dawn’s “When He Sees Me,” a self-doubt heart-tugger, reminiscent of Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?” from “She Loves Me.” With their encouragement, Jenna focuses on a regional baking contest, with its $20,000 prize money, her potential ticket out of the marriage, and into business for herself. Her talents as a baker are known far and wide. She begins to squirrel away some of her tips in hiding places around the house, to cover the contest’s entrance fee.
Enter: her potential Prince Charming, in the person of gynecologist Dr. Pomatter, who possesses all the right characteristics to fulfill that fantasy role. Drew Gehling, as the sympathetic doc, has a soothing vocal style that echoes James Taylor, and a modest awkwardness that made Topher Grace’s Eric on “That ’70s Show” so endearing. Of course, they begin a passionate affair. Of course, he’s married. Yet, their lovely falling-in-love duet “You Matter to Me” makes the case that, though indeed mismatched, do seem to belong together.
This would not be any kind of feel-good story if there were no romantic partners for her single friends in the offing. Dawn, in particular, makes it past her initial five-minute date with Ogie [you can conjure what he looks like from his name]. Christopher Fitzgerald is beyond smitten, showing up at the diner the morning after, igniting the proceedings with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” bouncing off the walls and sprawling over tabletops, with possibly the evening’s most infectious, rousing number – a genuine show-stopper.
With all the ‘pieces’ turned out by the top of the second act, they then start to come apart. The Good Doctor has a loving, charming wife, a nurse who Jenna meets during her pre-natal care. The no-account, drunken husband discovers Jenna’s cash cache, and keeps it all – again demoralizing her into thinking she would have no chance at winning. And every day that goes by, the baby’s existence becomes more apparent.
And while all the plot-points find their resolutions, they are not always what one might expect.
And when Jenna stares herself down in the mirror, assaulting her own lack of confidence and the loss of her younger self’s spirit and enthusiasm, the result is one of the best standout numbers of the season. Composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles gives Jenna, in the person of the compelling Jessie Mueller, “She Used to Be Mine.” Whatever shortcomings you believe “Waitress” may suffer from, this one number, with its raw emotions, daring self-examination and spot-on lyrics [“She is messy but she’s kind/ She is lonely most of the time.”] has been seamlessly married to the kind of melody line that soars to the sky, then pulls itself back down to earth, only to lift you again out of your seat, transfixed by Mueller’s Streisand-level acting ability to deliver the story inside the song. It’s that kind of transcendence one longs to discover, rare as it is, in musical theatre.
Fresh off the Tony Awards, it’s interesting to take a look back, on the past winners, as well as their competition – did you know that “West Side Story” lost to “The Music Man,” in the Best Musical category for 1958? The Heinemann Publishing edition of ‘The Tony Award’ chronicles all the winners and almost-winners, and includes a thorough history of the Tony Award founders, the American Theatre Wing. It benefits from having been co-edited by one of the Wing’s most esteemed past presidents, and friend to everyone in the theatre – Isabelle Stevenson. Also included is a piece by the Wing’s founder, Antoinette Perry, and the award is named for her – but you already know that . . . the announcement that a revival will open early next year of Lillian Hellman’s classic “The Little Foxes” includes the exciting news that it will star Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, who will alternate playing the polar-opposite roles of Regina and Birdie. If you were lucky enough to see the 1981 revival, directed by Austin Pendleton, the memory of Elizabeth Taylor [Regina] and Maureen Stapleton [Birdie] will always be the one to match. And to prepare for the upcoming production, pick up the ‘The Collected Plays – Lillian Hellman,’ which collects a dozen of this tough-as-nails scribe. ‘Another Part of the Forest’ is a prequel to ‘Foxes,’ and her searing indictment of homophobia, ‘The Children’s Hour,’ remains one of the most intricately-crafted piece of theatrical writing of the twentieth century . . . and from another great female writer, Molly Haskell, comes “Frankly, My Dear – ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited,” from Yale University Press. No less an authority on the landmark picture than Melanie herself, Olivia De Havilland, sings its praises in the book’s introduction.
Like the heroine of “Waitress,” the three central characters in Eric Overmyer’s new comedy “On The Verge” need to strike out to find their true selves. Now running at the Attic Theatre Company’s Walkerspace through July 9, features Emily Kitchens, Ella Dershowitz and Monette Magrath as the ladies in question . . . and a pair of the Bard’s summertime romp, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will make it as easy as possible to revel in its revelry. The adventurous company Shakespeare in the Parking Lot adapts the classic fable as a Lower East Side tale, behind the Clemente, 114 Norfolk Street, Thursday through Saturday evenings, July 7 to 24, and details are at www.shakespeareintheparkinglot.com. The New York Classical Theatre has already launched its travelling production of “Dream,” to be performed in Central Park West at West 103rd Street, now through June 26, Rockefeller Park in Battery Park, June 29 through July 2, and moving to Prospect Park the following week. Visit www.newyorkclassical.org for more info. Oh, and the best part of these Dreams? They’re all free. . . and if you still haven’t caught “Finding Neverland,” this delightful musical, a great ‘starter’ musical for kids to see, will close on August 21, and not even Tinkerbell will be able to make it reappear . . . finally, word comes that a new revival of “The Glass Menagerie” hits the Great White Way next February, starring Sally Field as the indomitable Amanda. With the announcement comes the report that the role of the crippled daughter/sister Laura will be portrayed by an actress in a wheelchair. One wonders how all the basic elements of that intricately-plotted plot that hinge on Laura’s disability, identified as pleurosis by the playwright, and the character, can be portrayed the way the author intended. She suffered a childhood infection that resulted in her having one leg shorter than the other and requiring her, for a time, to wear a leg brace, and though no longer needed, left her with a slight limp. All the internalized insecurities that that young woman carries, literally crippling her emotionally, contrast with the ‘barely noticeable’ faulty gait she struggles to hide. One wonders how such a critical distinction – the difference between the real and the perceived condition she lives with – can possibly be ignored when she’s in a chair. In an era when Arthur Miller’s evil teen flies, and her lies are actualized, in the current “Crucible” revival – not what the playwright intended – perhaps it’s too much to hope for, that any great play [by a now-deceased, and maybe defenseless playwright] can withstand the temptation for a director/producer decision-making team to be satisfied with the words on the page. Stay tuned.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play “Admissions” won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts. His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. He has written several other plays and musicals, three books, and numerous articles for a variety of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, Parade, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, USA Today and Reader’s Digest, among others. His documentary for Lifetime Television, “Test of Time,” was a CableAce Award-winner. He has taught theatre classes at several institutions, including HB Studio, Columbia University’s Teachers’ College and the New School. He will conduct a two-part workshop on Thornton Wilder’s classic play, titled “The Darker Side of ‘Our Town’ on June 20 & 21 – visit www.92Y.org for details. His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production [www.labordays.net].
CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk. Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, and at 212 – 666-6666.