Can one create an engrossing play about characters who will not or cannot express what they are feeling? That's the task Melissa James Gibson has set for herself in PLACEBO. I'm afraid she doesn't succeed at it, perhaps because it is an impossible task. Even the charismatic Carrie Coon cannot save this one. Her character, Louise, spends her days as a graduate student lab assistant working on an experiment with a drug that will enable women to want and enjoy sex even with husbands of many years. The fact that the drug doesn't seem to work may be because the playwright believes that even with a miraculous chemical intervention, long term sexual relationships can't work. She also seems to believe that long term relationships are generally doomed. A male colleague of Louise says that he can only stay interested in someone for two to two and a half hours. Louise is in a long term relationship with Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), a doctoral student in classical literature who is writing a dissertation on Pliny. Despite the many years they have been together, Louise and Jonathan talk, but don't really communicate or understand each other's coded messages. Jonathan is mired in doubt about his work. When his dissertation is a success and his doctorate is assured, he seems to lose interest in Louise. What is she to him or he to her? It's hard to decipher which makes it hard to care. We know virtually nothing of characters' back stories, which is all right if something interesting was happening in the present. Gibson is obviously influenced by Harold Pinter's work -- not the short lines, pauses and repetition -- but in Pinter one always knows something interesting is going on under the surface of conversation. The fact that Jonathan is African-American is not an issue at all. The character could just as easily be played by a white actor. This would not be an issue if we were given any way to figure Jonathan out. It's impossible not to wonder why race is not an issue at all. Given the nature of Louise's work, one would think that sex is central to her relationship with Jonathan, but what we see is a non-erotic relationship. What has held them together? Louise seems to connect in a joyful way only through childish games with men: a key toss with Jonathan and a strange relay race to a vending machine that she concocts with her colleague and one-time sexual partner, Tom (Alex Hurt).
Carrie Coon is always worth watching, but she isn't given much to work with. William Jackson Harper convincingly plays a man who would rather not talk, a man seething inside but trying to maintain control of everything but his nicotine habit. Alex Hurt makes Tom charming, but we can see that he too plays his cards very close to his chest. Daniel Aukin has created a well staged, fast-moving production, but he couldn't make a thin play seem deep.
It has been a very mixed season so far for Playwrights Horizons. Some very good work -- POCATELLO, GRAND CONCOURSE, BOOTYCANDY; real duds like IOWA; and mediocre work like POSTERITY. Let's hope for more consistency next season.
PLACEBO. Playwrights Horizons. April 5, 2015.