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The promise of a miracle drug has captivated society since the invention of modern medicine. Playwright Ana Nogueira tests the limits of better living through chemistry in Empathitrax, a facile satire now onstage at Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Nogueira doesn’t concern herself with the kinds of pharmaceuticals that lower blood pressure or regulate mood. Instead, she creates a therapy that allows its recipient to delve beneath the skin of another person—to get a peek behind the curtain of their unfiltered emotions. As the cleverly jargonish brand name that gives the play its title suggests, this capsule turns the taker into an empathy machine.
A stipulation: it’s only available to couples. So when Him (Makoto Hirano) and Her (Claire Inie-Richards) find themselves in a rut after 10 years of dating, they summon Joe (the wryly funny Matteo Scammell) to their apartment for a consultation. In the form of a prescription with a 12-hour half-life, Joe promises the partners a chance not just to reconnect, but to understand each other on a level deeper than ever.
The problems of progress
The action leans on science-fiction tropes that present the possibility of an idealized world where simple solutions exist for the most complex problems. The production design also utilizes a futuristic aesthetic, with Chris Haig’s grey-walled, functional living room set and Jillian Keys’s kooky costumes. Everything is recognizably close to reality but still slightly off-kilter.
In true sci-fi fashion, Nogueira also acknowledges that the march toward progress also brings its own set of problems. After the first few euphoric experiences on Empathitrax, Her finds herself collapsing into uncontrolled depression after tapering off her SSRI, convinced that she can now exist in a pure state of happiness. The concoction designed to save Him and Her’s rocky relationship arguably ends up causing more harm than good.
It's here that the script goes slightly off the rails. As suggested by the everyperson monikers bestowed on the two main characters, our understanding of their inner lives and the foundation of their relationship remains general—perhaps intentionally so. This feels clever in the early scenes, when we discover the deeper workings of their minds alongside their own sense of these revelations. (In the play’s universe, the drug works by allowing someone to access their partner’s emotional state through touch.) But it leaves the stakes low, and the level of understanding lower, when Him and Her hit their predictable rough patch.
An imbalanced journey
And while I didn’t find Empathitrax entirely objectionable in its portrait of psychopharmacology—for that, look to works like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, with an attitude so retrograde it might as well be funded by the Church of Scientology—Nogueira cannot avoid a slightly glib take on the function of medication in everyday life. This attitude reaches its climax in a fantasy-inspired denouement that suggests the raw power of love, not harnessed by any mood stabilizers, can repair even the deepest divergence.
Nogueira could focus more on what Him and Her learn in the fleeting moments where they feel utterly connected to each other’s psyches. As it stands, the presentation of their journeys feels imbalanced: she accesses the full palette of her emotions, while he remains slightly passive throughout. Perhaps because of this, the performances also seem unmatched. Inie-Richards offers a raw, compelling portrait of a person in crisis, while Hirano is left with little to play in a largely reactive role. Scammell returns, unnecessarily, as a fratty friend of Him, in a series of scenes that could be excised with no impact on the plot.
Nell Bang-Jensen, artistic director of Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, helms the production unsteadily, with long scene changes that zap the little forward momentum, and a general lack of suspense or shock at the couple’s more revealing intimate moments. Art is all about empathy, the ability to recognize and affirm the pleasure and pain of other people. Empathitrax doesn’t seem to trust that. Unfortunately, there’s no miracle cure.
Know before you go: Empathitrax contains frank discussion of mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
What, When, Where
Empathitrax. By Ana Nogueira, directed by Nell Bang-Jensen. $30-$69. Through March 5, 2023, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Masks are required at all Friday evening and Sunday matinee performances. Friday evening performances throughout the run are also being sold at a reduced capacity. Masks are optional at all other performances.
The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is an accessible venue, with wheelchair seating available on the orchestra and mezzanine levels. There will be an open-captioned and audio-described performance of Empathitrax on Saturday, March 4, at 2pm.
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