Playwrights don’t often provide sequels. There’s Henry VI, Parts II and III and the Phantom continuation, but audiences have yet to thrill to Hedda Gabler: Beyond the Grave or Waiting for Godot, Again. Yet Michael Weller offers a follow-up of sorts to Fifty Words, his 2008 study of extreme domestic distress. At the climax of that piece, a wronged wife dials her husband’s mistress. Side Effects, now at MCC, shows who answers.
While Fifty Words transpired over a single evening, Side Effects, directed by David Auburn, plays out in the months before and after it. Nevertheless, it has the same concerns of the earlier play: how emotional violence persists beneath a placid veneer. In a well-appointed Midwestern home, bicycle manufacturer Hugh Metz (Cotter Smith) and his bipolar wife, Lindy (Joely Richardson), the mistress of the earlier play, argue over her anxieties, his aspirations, and her frequent medication holidays.
Though Weller supplies plenty of backstory, the production can’t explain why this couple has stayed together so long. Lindy flits and sparks like a lightning bug. Hugh has all the volatility of mashed potatoes. Richardson and Smith are fine actors both, but we never feel their mutual need. Instead we wonder why they didn’t land in divorce court a decade ago.
While the actors can’t render this fictional marriage convincing, Richardson deserves particular plaudits for her straight-faced delivery of Weller’s more absurd lines, as when she must muse aloud, “How much Lindy must I sacrifice to your ambitions?” or murmur on the phone to her paramour, “What future could there be for us when we started in lies and deception?” What future could there be for a play with such dialogue? Here’s hoping Weller squashes Part III: Monogamy Strikes Back.