It took me over twelve hours to work out precisely how the various plot threads in Placebo were related. Judging from the conversations in the ladies room — where much constructive criticism takes place — I was not alone in my engrossment/head-scratching. It is a credit to Melissa James Gibson that I was sufficiently invested in her characters to invest further energy in understanding them. But it is also an indication that this talented playwright should have spent a bit more time polishing her creation before presenting it to a paying audience.
The plot revolves around PhD candidate Louise, brought very much to life by the fabulous Carrie Coon. Louise is desperate to feel connection to her family, her lover and her work on a double-blind medication study. But she fears that, like the placebos of old, she has no legitimate claim to those bonds. Ms. Coon and her colleagues (Florencia Lozano, William Jackson Harper and Alex Hurt) possess superior talent for delivering the hyper-realistic dialogue that makes up much of the play’s 90 minutes. It is to their credit that the piece has the essential warmth that makes the audience want to see her successful and happy.
Obie-winning director Daniel Aukin does his best to bring depth to the thin script. His clever staging moves each beat along and emphasizes the much-needed comic relief. A somewhat awkward and overly lengthy funeral “scene” brings the storytelling to a halt and, like a car on a hill, it takes great energy to get things rolling again. The performance also stops rather than ends, which is always unsatisfying.
That said, if there is anything in your life that used to come easily and now requires effort because of time, physical limitation, or increased cynicism (in other words, if you are human and of a certain age), Placebo is likely to speak to you. And when it comes to theater, that’s the real deal.
Placebo is playing on the Main Stage at Playwrights Horizons through April 5, 2015. For tickets and information, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/placebo/.