Kate Fodor's clever if uneven comedy "Rx," in its West Coast premiere at the Lost Studio under the direction of John Pleshette, has a great premise. The Schmidt pharmaceutical company is conducting clinical trials for a new drug, code named SP-925, which specifically targets workplace depression -- "a startling drop in norepinephrine levels during the working day," as neurology team leader Allison Hardy (the wonderful, terrifyingly peppy Kirsten Kollender) explains at a shareholders meeting.
Meena Pierotti (Mina Badie, perfectly cast) applies for the study. Having once published a book of prose poems, she can't help feeling she "was meant for better things" than managing editor of the piggeries section of American Cattle and Swine Magazine. She leaves work twice daily to cry in the old-lady underwear section of a department store. (She also meets an old lady there, played by the endearing K Callan, whose function in the play remains purely symbolic.)
Dr. Phil Gray (Jonathan Pessin), who oversees Meena's drug trial, is equally unfulfilled: He wanted to be an ER doctor but couldn't overcome his dislike of his patients.
That Meena and Phil will fall in love is inevitable, but the self-conscious and cutesy way the script engineers this development makes it unbelievable as well: Phil reads Meena's poems and is so moved by her descriptions of people's feet that he rediscovers his compassion — and begins photographing feet. We see them in bed together admiring the photos.
Then, ironically, the drug kicks in: Meena starts preferring her job to Phil. He's crushed, but the audience isn't because the too-brief scenes of Meena relishing swine-related editorial tasks are sharply entertaining. "They go by carcass weight?" she asks excitedly about a series of USDA meat-sales graphs, high-fiving her nerdy colleague Simon (James Donovan).
As the plot winds up, it gets broader, sillier and more cartoony, and the questions the playwright has so tantalizingly raised get lost. (Is it worse to suffer in a soulless job or to be the sort of person who loves it?)
There are consolations, though, in the performances of Michael Dempsey, who plays an ad exec and a scientist (he also adds flair to the frequent set changes on the slapdash set credited to director Pleshette), and Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski's soundtrack of popular songs enhanced with mood-drug references.
"Rx," the Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 1. $25. (323) 960-7780 or www.plays411.com/rx. Running time: 2 hours.