Ever since Pfizer came up with its miracle blue pill in 1998, the pharmaceutical industry has been seeking a “female Viagra” as a holy grail. That quest has run into a number of obstacles, a major one being that while male arousal can be measured with a ruler, female arousal is much more difficult to gauge. That idea is the basis for The Pleasure Trials, the play that received its world premiere at Amphibian Stage on the weekend before Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure the comedy does everything it sets out to do, but it is quite a diverting piece of theater.
The story takes place in the laboratory of Dr. Rachel Milan (Megan Haratine), a pharmacologist with a checkered history who has a lead on such a drug along with Callie Young (Shyama Nithiananda), her lab assistant who calls herself “Doctor” even though she hasn’t completed her doctorate yet. When their pill proves effective in animal trials — Callie calls up Rachel and says, “The voles are fucking!” — they move on to human trials, recruiting women for the study and placing half on placebos and others on the treatment.
This is written by Sarah Saltwick, who co-authored the play Egress, which Amphibian also premiered last fall. I find this to be a more satisfying stage work — like its predecessor, this play has an actor in multiple roles, with Kelsey Milbourn portraying all the women who agree to be test subjects. The quick-change work she does backstage is almost as impressive as the way she morphs into 10 distinct characters, women of varying sexual orientations, social classes, and levels of inhibition, which she fills out vividly. If ever a supporting role was meant to steal the show, surely it’s this one.
In addition, there are some funny stagings of the women going to a private room off the lab to watch porn so that their arousal can be measured. We hear only audio of the porn as some of the women fixate on the weird details of what they’re seeing. On the other hand, we do get to see a fake TV commercial for the drug, and the mimicry is dead on. Then there’s a dance number when a pissed-off Callie takes a handful of the pills at once and that good stuff kicks in. It’s all handled quite well by director Kara-Lynn Vaeni, making her debut at Amphibian.
Where the play goes a bit wobbly is on the intellectual side of things. It’s good that not all the women in the trial are pleased with the drug’s results, with a schoolteacher saying she doesn’t want to be thinking about sex when she’s with the children and almost everyone reporting weird dreams. A lesbian named Patricia has her libido revved up so high that her worn-out girlfriend winds up leaving. She explodes the study by having sex with Rachel and questioning the parameters of what the scientists are asking. Rachel agrees with her and graphs erotic desire in a way that’s incomprehensible to either Callie or the investors behind the drug, and it’s hard not to sympathize with them. If there’s a point about male pharma executives being afraid of a drug that’s all about women’s orgasms, the play largely loses it.
Even with this, the show doesn’t drag, and it’s consistently entertaining on a subject that hasn’t been done to death on the stage. I’ll take The Pleasure Trials over another performance of The Vagina Monologues any day.