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Melissa James Gibson’s Placebo is a chamber play recalls one of those New Yorker short stories about upper-middle-class academic types. There’s wonderful phrase-making and striking naturalistic details that feel familiar and true, but also a glaring absence of plot and a maddeningly elliptical ending. (The show runs through April 5 at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons main stage.)
Carrie Coon, a Tony nominee for the 2012 Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is the cipher at the center of Placebo. Even an actress as prodigiously talented as Coon can’t do much with this character: a post-grad researching a new drug to boost female libido, coping with the illness of her mother, and condescending to her boyfriend of four years, Jonathan, a classicist who struggles to complete his doctoral dissertation. William Jackson Harper, who memorably played the firebrand Stokely Carmichael opposite Bryan Cranston’s LBJ in last year’s Broadway production of All the Way, gives Jonathan a distracted scholarly air as well as a visceral surface insecurity.
Gibson, whose credits include The Americans and several episodes of this season’s House of Cards, has a real flair for exposition, and for capturing the dynamics of relationships and the natural rhythms of dialogue. Louise turns recognizably passive aggressive about Jonathan’s nicotine habit and calls his ex “Erika with a K.” And when Louise mentions that she got a call from Susan, he asks, “Your sister Susan or Suzie Susan?” — suggesting a host of acquaintances that we never meet but that ground us in a real couple’s back and forth. Gibson also creates set pieces that verge on the believably absurd, including a vending-machine relay race between Louise and her flirtatious fellow lab tech, Tom. Alex Hurt, who appeared in Classic Stage’s 2013 revival of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, shares his father William’s relaxed, intellectual bearing as Tom.
While individual moments shine in Placebo, overall the 95-minute play seems like back-to-back episodes from mid-season in some well-heeled cable drama. How are we meant to feel about the apparent unraveling of Louise and Jonathan’s romance? Is it a tragedy or a study in a mismatched relationship that has run its course? The takeaway proves elusive. Perhaps by adding additional scenes, Gibson’s intentions might crystallize more clearly. It’s hard to warm to Louise, an eager-to-please type who hates receiving massages and seems incapable of expressing her feelings. “What’s wrong with people not knowing what you’re thinking?” Jonathan asks her at one point. “Iiii’m just not into it,” she replies. The world contains stubbornly interior, uncommunicative women, of course, but there’s a reason they aren’t typically elevated to leading-lady status. Grade: B–