The drug that gives Ana Nogueira’s new play its name, Empathitrax, fosters complete intimacy between two people in a relationship. The users take it with water, then wait a bit and touch each other—waves of empathy ensue as the feelings of the other become utterly accessible. It’s apparent almost immediately that the man and woman in Empathitrax—Nogueira’s script identifies them only as Him and Her—need artificial stimulation. As they meet with a delivery guy from Empath in their minimalist living room to discuss dosages and procedures, they interrupt themselves, grasp at each other awkwardly, smile uncomfortably and generally broadcast that their relationship is strong but that there might be some problems.
Nogueira develops her theme carefully. Focusing on a drug that interferes with one’s natural personality traits is not a fresh topic—Placebo and The Effect have been there—but Nogueira’s play is still a strong entry in a subgenre of modern drama. It allows its actors to work with a wide range of emotions. And those actors—Jimmi Simpson and Justine Lupe as Him and Her, and Genesis Oliver, who doubles as the Empath delivery man and as Him’s buddy Matty D.—give astonishingly good performances, not just charting the emotions unleashed by the drug, but investing the science-fiction aspect of the story with credibility. As they undergo the effects of Empathitrax, they touch each other and each feels what the other is feeling. The physical empathy they enact is persuasive and overpowering.
Simpson once starred on Broadway in The Farnsworth Invention and looked set to be a fixture in the theater, but forsook it for television work. He was clearly an actor of great gifts, and they have not diminished. He uses every second of stage time, much like Vanessa Redgrave, to create a pointillist portrait. One is afraid to look away for fear of missing the tiniest apt grimace, deep breath, or shoulder shift that conveys crucial information.
If Him is calm, rational, giving and patient with his partner to a fault in their daily lives, Her can still push his buttons at times. She buys a bed they cannot afford without consulting him, and that provokes exasperation. But every interaction, every hesitation, every flash of emotion between Simpson and Lupe is precisely evoked under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s superb direction.
Lupe’s Her is needy and insecure, and although the opening scene with the delivery man plays like a Cowardian comedy of manners, things turn darker. “This play is a comedy, until it’s not,” reads a direction in the script. And it’s quite funny for awhile, as Him subsequently meets with his buddy Matty on the rooftop to vape and describe his experience with the drug. “I guess that I didn’t know how much the little things mattered to her and she, she didn’t realize just how much I cared about her,” he says. “But now we can actually show each other, transfer the information. It’s quick and it’s potent.”
Matty tries to relate every emotion to a past drug experience: “So it’s like doing Molly?” he asks. “So like, a Xanax.” He’s an expert on artificial stimulants, but, in a scene at a party with Her, he reveals that his impetus to using drugs may well be a result of his sick father: “He’s like, almost catatonic, all the shit they have him on. It’s keeping him alive which is good, I guess. But.” To which Her responds: “But what’s the point of being alive if you aren’t really taking it all in.”
It’s a modern dilemma—the desire to experience everything. Even the rampaging use of the Internet to see life in all corners of the earth, to miss nothing, to signpost one’s existence for others to notice, is a symptom. Her tries to finesse the shortcomings of her relationship with him by adopting a dog, Rufus, who is kept in a crate and sometimes barks and sometimes is heard chewing on treats (the sound design is by Matt Otto). Rufus’s unconditional love cheers her, and Lupe has a couple monologues with the dog, in which she displays her neediness: “Do you like me even a little? Do you realize I saved your life? No one in the world knows what could have happened to you if you stayed in that shelter.”
In Nogueira’s satisfying ending, well grounded but still a surprise, the author comes down on the side of natural experience rather than chemically induced effects. Simpson’s Him does something uncharacteristic—he improvises—and the delicacy and romance of the final moments pull the play back from the darkness enveloping it. It’s no longer a comedy gone awry.
Colt Coeur's production of Empathitrax plays at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave., entrance on Dominick Street) through Oct. 1. Evening performances are at 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sundays and on Monday, Sept. 26. There is also a matinee at 4 p.m. on Oct. 1. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased by visiting here.org.