First Nighter: Melissa James Gibson Prescribes an Ineffective 'Placebo'

03/16/2015 08:47 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Louise (Carrie Coon) spends her time at the lab working on a study of female desire--with desire-depleted Mary (Florencia Lozano) apparently her primary subject--but it's in her private life that her own female desire is continually thwarted, poor thing.

With Placebo, Melissa James Gibson, who's written some A-plus plays ([sic] prominent among them), is intent on depicting the difficulty of keeping a love affair buoyant. The object of Louise's often-unrequited affection is Jonathan (William Jackson Harper), who appears to be housebound and barely responsive as he torments himself while trying to complete his dissertation on Pliny the Elder.

You read that right: Pliny the Elder. Furthermore, he's so immersed himself in Pliny the Elder and not Pliny the Younger (he insists on pronouncing "Pliny" to rhyme with "skinny," nor "tiny," and perhaps he's right) that his blindered focus increasingly distances him from Louise.

Although Gibson brings Mary back for short scenes in which she makes intermittent good or bad reports (she may or may not be on a placebo in Mary's sexual-desire revitalization experiment), and although Louise's lab friend Tom (Alex Hurt) occasionally ambles through and eventually provides a cheerful respite for depressed Louise, it's the Louise-Jonathan combo that's relentlessly under the dramatic microscope.

The hitch--it surfaces, unfortunately early--is that, though Gibson knows how to write mighty fine dialogue and often does, she has it spewing from two thoroughly unappealing, unengaging central characters. From the get-go, whatever the mutual Louise-Jonathan attraction is meant to be is elusive.

Louise appears to go for him more than he for her, but that hardly makes them a couple with whom an audience wants to spend an evening hoping for a better future. Nor does it help that, under frequent Gibson collaborator Daniel Aukin's direction. Louise and Jonathan converse with each other in matching monotones. That's until they take to a series of shouting matches that eventually develop into a late-play go-round featuring flying objects. The occasion for the flurry is Louise's unconvincing proclamation that she's moving out once and for all.

Contemplating in tranquility now what passed before me then, I'm still wondering why Gibson thinks the tribulations Louise and Jonathan--who'd run neck-and-neck in a who's-less-likable contest--visit on one another would have any interest for paying customers. Her intentions remind me of instances when playwrights who've undergone very personal trials incorrectly assume audiences will care to be let in on them.

Whether or not that's what's happening here, Louise and Jonathan making a go of it--or, put another way, Louise and Jonathan serving as I-shall-heal placebos for each other--couldn't be of much less interest.

If that pull isn't there, what good is the play? It's a poser no matter how trenchant the ensemble acting is, and Coon, Harper, Lozano and Hurt are certainly not bad. The most I could muster as I exited Placebo speedily was the thought that in the long run Louise and Jonathan should stick together for the simple reason that if they do, no one else will have to put up with either of them.

Incidentally, the Placebo action takes place not only in Jonathan's apartment, where Louise has been co-habiting to his growing dismay, but also in Louise's lab at one end of which is a temperamental vending machine. This means that the same furniture doubles, as David Zinn has supplied it, in an unusually awkward way.

As a result, confusion sometimes rules. At one point, Louise returns to Jonathan's pad and sits down at the center-stage square wooden table where remain two red plastic cups placed there in the lab. (Gee, magic realism.) The effect is that the untidy writing has now affected the very set.