Before the play even begins, the first thing you notice are the lights. They're everywhere: chicly mounted in foyer walls, hung from the ceiling, and positioned in wall sconces, table lamps, and floor lamps, all of them poised to illuminate the immaculate IKEA set. But when Side Effects does begin at Mosaic Theatre, the first thing we see is a living room shrouded in darkness and actress Deborah L. Sherman, decked in elegant evening wear and splayed inelegantly on a sofa, smoking away her problems with a rogue cigarette.
The lights come on a couple of minutes later when actor Jim Ballard enters the room, flushing it in an unforgiving glow, and off we go, for the first of five scenes of marital apocalypse over the course of one couple's year and a half.
The sudden transition from darkness to light is an apt metaphor for Sherman's character, Melinda, who suffers from bipolar disorder. A gifted writer who also teaches developmentally disabled children while raising two boys of her own, she has trouble fitting into any circumscribed boxes, let alone the one marked "politician's wife." But it's the role she is asked to play by her husband, Hugh (Ballard), a former radical sequestered in Big Chill complacency in the Midwest. The heir to a bicycle magnate, he's running for office in his state's assembly. When Melinda, off her medication, flees an important, donor-filled society event for unspecified reasons, it prompts the first of many sharp, precise, and uncomfortably authentic squabbles, as scripted by the raw pen of Brooklyn playwright Michael Weller.
Weller is a master at deconstructing the rot that metastasizes in metropolitan affluence, and Side Effects may be his creative zenith. The cruelty his characters express toward each other scrapes to the bone. To paraphrase a Mountain Goats lyric, their conversations are like minefields — war-scarred landscapes breached often with the delicacy of a steamroller.
It's a sad, friction-filled life, but they deserve each other: They're both deceitful and surreptitious, they both dodge uncomfortable questions, and each understands the subtext behind the other's deceptive exterior. Most important, neither really has control over his or her actions. Melinda is an emotional marionette, a slave to the directions of a diseased mind, while Hugh is a corporate puppet, another empty-suited politico beholden to special interests. Beyond its psychologically accurate portrayal of a bipolar patient, Side Effects offers equally fascinating character insight into the myopic worldview of the politician, where everything — from wardrobes and dining options to possible infidelity — is filtered through the prism of campaign spin.
For roles that require immersion into the entire spectrum of human emotion, casting is everything in a show like this, and director Richard Jay Simon chose a pair of wonderful duelists in Sherman and Ballard. Behind a workingman's stubble, the latter is perfect as the coupling's frustrated, self-centered bedrock; it's a performance of unwavering strength.
But don't be surprised if all eyes are on Sherman, a revelation in the role of her career. Outside of the stage, two of Sherman's family members suffer from bipolar disorder, and her understanding of the condition shows in this unrelenting tour de force. Taking complete ownership of the role, she's able to channel conflicting mental states — simultaneously ferocious and vulnerable. She's so subtle that it's impossible to differentiate Melinda's genuine moments from her manipulations. She convincingly inhabits the same underlying characteristics whether her character is on or off her medication, never swinging too wildly in any one direction. She's a pendulum who's well aware of her center.
In a fashion true to its bipolar subject, Side Effects is a play driven by opposing shifts, from the constantly rotating power struggle of its turbulent couple to the playwright's tonal switches from comedy to tragedy, affection to repulsion, mirth to menace. The show is like Melinda off her medication: exciting, unpredictable, and difficult to contain.