March 16, 2015

Pliny the Elder — naturalist, philosopher, warrior and all-around sage of the early Roman Empire — plays an unlikely role in “Placebo,” the new play by Melissa James Gibson that opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons. Classicists, don’t get too hot and bothered. Pliny doesn’t actually appear as a character in Ms. Gibson’s slight but divertingly offbeat comedy-drama. But he’s the subject of a dissertation being valiantly struggled over by one member of the couple at the center of this play. Their conversations return to this fascinating figure with a regularity that makes you feel he’s almost a presence onstage. Who knew he died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, racing toward the calamity out of unquenchable curiosity while others were fleeing for their lives? (Well, classics scholars, I suppose.) Jonathan (William Jackson Harper) has begun to despair of his Pliny opus, now in the works for seven years. His girlfriend of four of those years, Louise (Carrie Coon), does her best to assure him that, yes, one day it will be finished, and one day he will get a fine job and life will be grand. The gloomy Jonathan thinks otherwise, and reaches for another forbidden cigarette.