The Effect (Coal Mine Theatre) Review: My Chemical Romance

In less than a decade, the Coal Mine Theatre has become one of Toronto’s most interesting theatre companies, cultivating a reputation for daring pieces, brilliant acting, and innovative use of its minuscule space. Co-founded by the husband-wife team of Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley (they got married at the theatre in 2017), this season’s highlights have included bravura performances from Sarah Gadon (in the title role of Yerma) and Moya O’Connell (The Sound Inside), to which can now be added the quartet of stars who make up The Effect, running until July 30th.

The Effect (Coal Mine Theatre) Review: My Chemical Romance
The Effect (Coal Mine Theatre).

The Coal Mine prides itself on the intimacy of its productions, with its venue at 2076 Danforth Avenue accommodating a maximum of about 120 patrons. (By way of comparison, the Princess of Wales can hold about 2,000 audience members.)

That intimacy lends itself well to Lucy Prebble’s four-hander The Effect. Originally mounted at London’s National Theatre in 2012 (with Billie Piper in the lead role, making this the second Coal Mine play this year – after Yerma – to begin life as a Billie Piper production), The Effect is the story of two strangers who sign up for an experimental drug trial, only to form an instant – and highly potent – bond.

As an exploration of the human mind, The Effect poses interesting questions about the psychopharmacology industry, over-prescription of antidepressants, and what it means for two people to feel the rush of connection in unusual or extreme circumstances. That said, for a play explicitly about depression and mental health, The Effect is also surprisingly funny, with leads Aris Athanasopoulos (“Tristan”) and Leah Doz (“Connie”) making for a charming pair of drug trial volunteers. They are joined by Aviva Armour-Ostroff (“Lorna”) and Jordan Pettle (“Toby”), the two doctors overseeing the trial who have their own, decidedly problematic dynamic to work through.

The Effect (Coal Mine Theatre) Review: My Chemical Romance
The Effect (Coal Mine Theatre).

Where The Effect really shines is with its cast.

Athanasopoulos is excellent as Tristan, the perennial trial volunteer (it’s a quick way to make a few bucks), who forms an immediate connection with first-timer Connie (Leah Doz). Tristan is eminently likeable, but his charisma cannot hide the fact he is a bit of a player (millennials have another word for it, but we can’t print it here). Connie, meanwhile, is a psychology student whose reasons for participating in the trial are left deliberately ambiguous: is she here merely as a student wishing to experience a trial firsthand, or is it because of her own, latent, mental health worries?

Much of the tension of the play lies in the interactions – and burgeoning relationship – between Tristan and Connie, especially as it becomes apparent that the trial drug is playing havoc with their critical thinking skills, not to mention their libidos. (Not for nothing is one of the main characters named Tristan.) But while it’s Tristan and Connie who are the stars of the trial – and, to a degree, the play itself – it’s Armour-Ostroff’s Lorna who nearly steals the show as the seemingly jaded, unfeeling trial overseer who is eventually revealed to carry her own mental health burdens. Pettle’s Toby probably gets the least to do, though he does get the best laugh of the whole show, in a “Ted Talk”-styled presentation that takes an unexpectedly bizarre turn.

Mitchell Cushman’s direction and Nick Blais’s prop design are also worth highlighting, with Cushman making excellent use of the Coal Mine’s limited space, including one key sequence in which, with only a slight shift in lighting, we are effectively transported to a whole new location. Blais’s custom-built transforming furniture, which shifts from chair to hospital bed to table with a few clicks of a hinge, is also worth highlighting. (If he’s taking orders, let us know!)

And while it’s rare that a play has a worthy soundtrack, The Effect‘s 80s-style chiptunes (I swear, some of this music came straight from my old Amiga) pair perfectly with the bleeps and bloops of the medical machinery. Plus, The Effect features perhaps the greatest LCD Soundsystem needle drop I’ve ever heard.

Where The Effect falters is in its finale, suffering from an all-too-common trend I’ve taken to calling the Last Act Blues. Once again, The Effect sees a contemporary playwright struggling to come up with a satisfying conclusion, and so falling back on an artificial “escalation” that undermines everything that comes before. The penultimate scenes in particular suck much of the life out of The Effect‘s central relationship, jettisoning the very questions which made for such a fascinating first half to the play.

On the other hand, the play’s very final moments – no spoilers here – do go in an interesting, somewhat unexpected direction, centering a dynamic left mostly unaddressed throughout the two-plus hour runtime. Not quite hopeful, not quite despairing, The Effect will leave you with much to think about.

The Effect runs now until July 30, 2023 at the Coal Mine Theatre. Tickets here.

And stay tuned to the Coal Mine Theatre website for their 2024-2025 season announcement, coming July 27th.