Dallas' Second Thought Theatre invokes Black Mirror with latest play
The idea of a truth serum is terrifying enough, but what about someone being able to read your emotions? That's the core concept in Ana Nogueria's witty and core-shaking Empathitrax, which puts one couple under the influence of drugs designed to promote intimacy.
Not surprisingly, the lovers' high ends up being more scary than feel-good, and in Second Thought Theatre's unrelenting roller coaster ride of a production you're just as trapped as the people who can't untangle from their partner's sensations.
"This is the 'work' of a relationship," justifies Jenny Ledel's Her, a smartly dressed woman whose lightning-quick mind is what first attracted her partner of a decade, Drew Wall's Him. As the couple accepts the five paired doses from the slick "drug sommelier," who makes house calls to their tastefully decorated but slightly bland home (capably designed by MFA student Amelia Bransky), a world of possibilities opens up before them.
After going through a "rough meadow" in their relationship, Him and Her are ready to succumb to Big Pharma's fix-it-all promises. They light a candle, pour water into wine goblets (alcohol is discouraged), and giddily knock one back.
At first, it's exhilarating to watch the two rediscover each other: emotionally, mentally, and physically (Ledel and Wall previously starred together in STT's intense Belleville, so their believable coupledom is born out of prior trust and experience). "You really, really like me," Ledel says with wonder as their hands touch. "I really, really do," Wall answers, his voice hoarse with emotion.
But it quickly turns into a Black Mirror-esque nightmare when Her decides it's time to wean herself off Zoloft and bare her "true self." A montage of tiny scenes, expertly directed by Carson McCain, shows Her determinedly clutching her phone while reciting her decreasing dosage to a rep from the company behind her new medication. The exposed beams that stud the top of her house cast prison-like bars over her face, thanks to Aaron Johansen's effective lighting design.
Once Him gets a taste of how deep and all-consuming his partner's depression is, he can't escape it either. The look of sheer pain and the dawning understanding on Wall's face the first time her experiences Her's emotional baseline is heartbreaking.
To escape, he vapes marijuana and talks it through with his buddy, Matty D. Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, the newest member of Dallas Theater Center's resident acting company, flips effortlessly between the dopey best friend and the slightly robotic Empathitrax rep, providing both messy humanity and too-polished assurance.
Matty's relationship with Him is a little undercooked (could there be some unrequited romance there?), but he serves the story by showing how Empathitrax is infiltrating the black market — and consequently exposing millions of people to emotional invasion without their permission.
Nogueira doesn't delve too deeply into this topic, nor does she fully explore the drug's superhero-like ability to transfer your own emotions to your partner (that's tossed in later, almost as an aside). And when depression becomes all-consuming for both Him and Her, the play gets dragged down with it, until a reaffirming finale injects a little hope back into the story. It's a wise note on which to end, because chances are this play will leave a lasting mark on your own emotions.
Second Thought Theatre's Empathitrax runs through April 28 at Bryant Hall.