Toast/The Effect

Toast, 4/24/16 (Sun), Off Broadway

The Effect, 4/24/16 (Sun), Off Broadway

Toast: A revival of the debut piece by the entertaining British writer Richard Bean. I usually avoid US productions of UK shows because of differing acting styles and accents all over the map, but this was imported intact from London in the Brits on Broadway series. The unglamorous setting is a canteen in an aging bread factory, where the all-male work force whiles away the breaks between their grueling plant duties with cigarettes, stale sandwiches, idle talk (e.g. gossip about one worker’s affair with a toothless woman, eye-opening use for skate fish) and horseplay (a habit of crotch-grabbing in one guy’s case). There are looming rumors of the plant’s imminent closure, and one worker is suspected to be plotting to bring them down and grab a management position elsewhere. A sudden massive order has forced them to work all night, but the machinery suddenly goes haywire, due apparently to an unprecedented oversight by a 40-year veteran – or was it? With the plant down, the workers could just go home for full pay and leave the blame on the veteran. Then again, the malfunction could also give the company the excuse it needs to shut them down, which would be a disaster for everyone given their bleak chances of finding other work. In the end, they decide to make a dangerous break into the hot oven in hopes of dislodging the bread tray that has jammed the equipment.

The action doesn’t really get going until the second act, when the tension of sabotage and the perilous move to fix the equipment kick into gear. But the action is not really the point here. The play, though a comedy through-and-through, is more about the numb lives of the working-class men whose lives begin and end with the tough factory work, which was not my image of a bread plant at all (it’s based on the author’s own year-long experience as a bread factory worker). The longest-serving worker, the rundown Nellie (Matthew Kelly), makes a striking entrance utterly covered in bread residue, his lifeless eyes and grunted responses telling us all we need to know about a life spent on the bread line. Others are drawn with a lighter touch, and the author is not calling for sympathy as much as simply showing the situation as it is. The characterizations are extremely strong, including the down-to-business foreman (Steve Nicolson), the duplicitous worker, and the crotch grabber (Simon Greenall). The one misstep was the higher-class “mature student” taken in as an intern, whose weird musings and ominous prophecies stood at odds with the realistic banter elsewhere. He amounted to a lame attempt at making things “interesting”, recalling the superfluous supernatural hints in The Humans. The dialogue was otherwise lively and sharp as per the Bean standard, even with those heavy accents. It was hard to know where the show was going in the first act, and some of the sequences were belabored, especially an overly protracted scene in which the enervated Nellie dully eats his sandwich. The faster pace of the second act was most welcome, and the camaraderie on display in support of Nellie and his reputation was rousing. A sly comedic presentation of desperate lives.

The Effect: A thoughtful drama by Lucy Prebble about two kids in a drug trial who unexpectedly – and against the rules – fall in love. Is that their true feelings or the result of the experimental antidepressant? Which if either has the placebo? And would that matter? Is the doctor running the trial, who believes that depression may not be a medical condition but an honest way of seeing the world, being tested herself? The boy insists to the girl that he is not a “side effect”, while the doctor says separately to her boss, “There’s no such thing as side effects. They’re just effects you can’t sell.” The play raises a number of interesting questions about mind and matter. The overlapping relationship between the depression-prone doctor and her boss (and former lover), while necessary thematically, is less believable character-wise, and her confession to her patient about the placebo in the midst of the experiment is simply not credible. But overall the show is an intelligent look at a provocative topic. The realistic staging uses a nicely clinical set with moving panels, veering only briefly into a trendier use of video projections, unusual for director David Kromer, to highlight the lovers’ trysts. Susannah Flood was the standout in the strong four-person cast as the female trial subject who agonizes over whether the boy’s professions of love are from the drug or the heart. A worthwhile drama.

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