nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 18, 2011
In 2008, Michael Weller introduced us to Adam and Jan, a fairly well-to-do New York couple whose already fragile marriage disintegrated even further when it was discovered that he was having an affair with a woman in the Midwest.
The searing rawness of Fifty Words, directed with razor-sharp precision by Austin Pendleton and astonishingly acted by Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel, is almost completely the opposite of Weller’s newest play, a companion piece called Side Effects, currently running at the Lucille Lortel Theater to close MCC Theater’s season. One doesn’t need to have seen Fifty Words to understand Side Effects, which involves Adam’s paramour Lindy and her husband Hugh, though those who have seen both will inevitably realize what Side Effects lacks.
If Fifty Words was a portrait of a marriage between two people who still felt love for one another, Side Effects, effectively staged for the most part by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn and featuring Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith, is a portrait of a relationship where interest has been lost a long time ago. Lindy, a bipolar writer-turned-special education teacher, and Hugh, a banker-turned-would-be politician, haven’t felt anything for one another for quite a long time. Lindy has been seeing Adam, whenever she can steal a moment away, and Hugh, well aware, is trying to orchestrate the perfect family (which also includes their two teenage sons who are sent to boarding school) for the cameras.
Smith is near-perfect as a small-town politician who realizes his aspirations could be destroyed in a hot second and Richardson, with a wavering American accent, easily navigates the many shifts in Lindy’s emotions. Yet their lack of chemistry makes it difficult to see what they saw in one another to begin with, let alone understand how the two could be married for so long. The inherent problem in Auburn’s direction is that, after starting off fairly strong, it veers into soap opera territory. When, towards the end, Hugh announces revelations of his own—and you can predict them—the audience started howling with laughter. Perhaps that’s also a problem with Weller’s script, which doesn't paint portraits of people one cares about. Neither Hugh nor Lindy feels real; just like giant bundles of character traits.
The design elements—a mammoth set by Beowulf Borritt, generally flattering costumes by Wade Laboissonniere, lighting by Jeff Croiter, and thumping incidental music by Scott Killian—propel the play further into the world of Pine Valley or Bay City.
Side Effects is the third play in a trilogy, that includes the aforementioned Fifty Words and a play titled Do Not Disturb, which introduces us to Adam and Lindy’s affair. It had a run in London a number of years ago, and I hope MCC will give it life in New York sooner rather than later. After seeing the effect Adam and Lindy’s relationship had on their respective marriages, I’m very interested in seeing how they first got together.