Sutheshna "Suthe" Mani (left) and Sarah Alida LeClair in "The Pleasure Trials." Photo by Daren Scott
What if there was a pill a woman could take that would boost her sexual desire and ramp up her libido?
There is such a pill in playwright Sarah Saltwick’s “The Pleasure Trials,” now onstage at Moxie Theatre.
Dr. Rachel Milan (Sarah Alida LeClair) is a dead-serious researcher who believes she has developed a medicinal antidote to Female Desire Deficit Disorder, a syndrome that was identified and defined in a thesis by aspiring doctor Callie Young (Suthe Mani), who is now her assistant. Together they are conducting a trial study to determine the efficacy of the unnamed drug, each hoping it will ultimately earn FDA approval. The younger, more excitable Callie wants to be rich and famous; the grimly determined Dr. Milan wants to be the creator of a “miracle” pill.
Much of the first act of “The Pleasure Trials” is comprised of various study volunteers (all played by Andrea Agosto) being interviewed then returning regularly to report on their reactions or side effects (or lack thereof). Dr. Milan and Callie, meanwhile, interpret numbers and readouts and speak in deadening research jargon. The proceedings slog forward in spite of the personality Agosto instills in her multiple characterizations and the presence onstage of cellist Sharon Taylor, who adds grace notes or sound effects when needed.
It’s not until the far more engaging second act of “The Pleasure Trials” that the production directed by Marti Gobel sparks: Callie, after a breakup with her boyfriend, gobbles down a fistful of anti-FDDD pills, while through an attraction to one of the study volunteers Dr. Milan reveals why she is the way she is. If “The Pleasure Trials” was intended to be a comedy, you wouldn’t know it until Act Two. If “The Pleasure Trials” possesses tangible conflict, you wouldn’t know that until Act Two either.
The polar opposites that are Rachel Milan and Callie Young are so mismatched as collaborators that one wonders how they ever got this far in an actual research study. As the uptight doctor, LeClair is hamstrung by her character’s almost complete interiority. At least Mani gets to bust loose in the second act, though after popping way too many libido pills she comes off as high on Maui Wowie more than on sheer lust.
Versatile as Agosto is in her many turns as study volunteers, the play would be more interesting, especially in Act One, if a series of different actors played these roles. It’s not easy to suspend disbelief.
There’s no disputing that Saltwick’s play addresses important questions about female sexual desire and a woman’s right to not only happiness but pleasure. If only it did so with more vibrancy, more humor and less research-speak.
“The Pleasure Trials” runs through Sept. 11 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.