Commenting on the chemistry among the actors of "The Effect" feels almost redundant. Lucy Prebble's smart and stimulating play, after all, concerns the science of love, and how much the organic elements of attraction that course through our bodies might be altered by substances added to our systems.
But it sure helps when the play's protagonists — a pair of paid volunteers in a pharmaceutical company's study of a new drug — actually seem as if they might be turned on by each other. And in the sexy, well-synchronized performances of Rafi Silver and Katie Kleiger, Studio Theatre's stylish production, directed by David Muse, has no problem immersing us in the story's central mystery: whether the intense passion that develops between Silver's Tristan and Kleiger's Connie has been triggered by the heart, or a bottle of pills.
The seriocomedy's mechanics are more involved than that, having to do, too, with a pair of middle-aged psychiatrists (Gina Daniels and Eric Hissom), researchers with a history between them of some deeper and unhappier complexity — one whose fallout itself might have required intervention by the medical profession. So the play becomes a kind of emotional ballet of conflicting impulses, a nuanced contemplation of the romantic confusion wrought by a combination of natural and artificial interactions.
A previous work by Prebble, "Enron," an overly loud and grotesque satire of a vast American financial scandal known by that title, opened to huzzahs in London and to Bronx cheers on Broadway. "The Effect" offers a far better case for Prebble's skills as an observer of the intrusions of the corporate mentality into our lives and the effects it has, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
In this instance, the company is a fictitious one, Raushen, performing a clinical trial of a supposed antidepressant. The audience enters on two sides of a runway-style platform that bisects Studio's Stage 4: We're spectators for the weeks-long experiment. Alex Basco Koch's projections add a dash of sci-fi flash to a set by Luciana Stecconi so white and pristine it looks as if a key design ingredient were disinfectant. Here, Tristan and Connie begin a routine of round-the-clock monitoring while ingesting tablets made up of they know not what. It's the job of Lorna — portrayed by the excellent Daniels with a mask of poker-faced neutrality that slowly peels away — to keep them on the regimen ordained by Hissom's equally finely played Toby, whose aloofness occasionally gives way to charm.
What seems like a fairly straightforward love story becomes richer as we learn from the doctors that the antidepressant has side effects that may or may not engage the libido. That some of the subjects are administered placebos only deepens the question of whether Tristan and Connie can trust their feelings, any more than can Lorna and Toby.
Fueled by our curiosity about these drug trials and the social isolation required of the subjects, "The Effect" benefits from the aura of mystery that science can engender: funny how a play about taking exact measurements of every bodily function can be so wise about what science can't calibrate, regarding the most ephemeral of our vital signs. Even more rewardingly, "The Effect" is one of those plays that compels you to think about your own choices, and what formulaic combination might account for what drew you to those you love.
Muse, Studio's artistic director, applies his accustomed intelligence to another Studio-worthy project here. He elicits the best from his actors, most notably from Silver and Kleiger, who have personality to spare. They persuasively offer up fallible people, endearing and flawed and yes, in each other's company possessing that magic ingredient: chemistry.
The Effect, by Lucy Prebble. Directed by David Muse. Projections, Alex Basco Koch; set, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Heather C. Jackson; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound and original music, Ryan Rumery; fight choreography, Robb Hunter; production stage manager, Becky Reed. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $20-$60. Through Oct. 29 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.