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June 22, 2011 6:14 pm

Side Effects, Lucille Lortel Theatre, NY

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If you have ever looked at a long-married couple and wondered what possibly drew them to each other initially, Side Effects provides further fodder for reflection. Written by Michael Weller and presented by MCC Theatre, this 90-minute, two-character play examines the course of a marriage in a succession of scenes that are less like conversations and more like rounds in a welterweight fight.

In one corner we have Joely Richardson as Melinda Metz and in the other, Cotter Smith as her husband, Hugh Metz. They have two teenage sons. Hugh has given up a booming banking career in New York and returned with his family to his home city in the American Midwest. His father has died and Hugh has taken over the family’s bicycle manufacturing business. He also nurses political ambitions.

Like many women in real-life politics recently, Melinda has scant interest in being the Good Wife. In New York she had artsy friends and had laboured over a book of poetry. In the Midwest she becomes a special education teacher while loathing the local burghers necessary to her husband’s ambitions.

 
Side Effects
 Arch: Joely Richardson

That Melinda and Hugh are still connected as a couple has mostly to do with Melinda’s bipolar disorder. Whatever their commonalities in youth, they have melted in a blur of meds. Hugh nags at Melinda to take her pills, but she realises that in her moodiness lies her power to upend her husband’s rise to influence.

Side Effects plays a little like Strindberg on lithane; during its dry patches I wondered how many Romantic or post-Romantic masterpieces would have been created if all their makers had been diagnosed and medicated. During the play’s juicier moments – when Melinda goads the rather passive-aggressive Hugh into actual anger – I found myself marvelling at the degree of Melinda’s self-possession.

Weller lends Side Effects punchy dialogue and an impressive accrual of detail. A phone call involving the sons, however, overburdens the story. With his facial resemblance to George W. Bush, Smith is well cast by director David Auburn as the fledgling politico. Richardson interprets Melinda so unpleasantly – beyond even the degree of sarcasm suggested by the script – that I never quite cared what happened to her. But her actorly assurance was beyond reproach.

 

 


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