There’s almost NOTHING to see at the movies these days except techno-driven retreads of assorted superheroes, smurfs, or humans acting like imbeciles. Unless you’ve put your brain on ice this summer, your resources are BEST spent on live theater. Here’s my take on three onstage right now beginning with THE EFFECT a New England Premiere up at GLOUCESTER STAGE with an all-star cast and director, a beautiful set design, and a premise with promise.

Lindsay Crouse, Susannah Hoffman, Brad Hall & Mickey Solis

Producer/director/actor Sam Weisman (“George of the Jungle,” “The Out-of-Towners,” TV’s “The Sing Off”) here directs Lucy Prebble’s thoughtful comedy about love and psycho-pharmaceuticals in the setting of a research clinic. How appropriate. Is love a drug and can it be manufactured? As the play begins, an experiment is in progress administered by Dr. Lorna James (Lindsay Crouse) and Dr. Toby Sealey (Brad Hall). They are testing to see what happens when two subjects are given a drug which excites the cerebral cortex to a state of romantic love. The subjects– Connie (Susannah ¬†Hoffman) a cautious realist, and Tristan Frey (Mickey Solis) an upbeat risk-taker– do fall in love. But would they have anyway? Are they both actually on the drug? Is their natural chemistry any more or less “real?” These are some of the questions the play asks and they have been asked before, but Prebble asks them in a larger context: are we more, or less, or exactly the sum of our parts?

And what of the doctors conducting the experiment? Their relationship and motives¬†bring another dimension to the experiment–which pose another question: what is measurable? Can we measure anything if human emotions/intentions are always a factor? And how do we define “effects”? As Crouse’s character notes: “Side effects are the effects you don’t want to sell. There are just effects.”

Crouse remains one of our most brilliant actresses; she has a stillness that always draws us toward the ultimate inscrutability of all human beings. She layers this conflicted psychiatrist with equal parts gravitas and fragility as the experiment unfolds back and forth in time. Crouse and Brad Hall cook up MUCH more chemistry and interest on stage than Hoffman and Solis do as Connie and Tristan; that Connie would be attracted to the borderline creepiness of Tristan’s intrusive personality is hard to accept. This is a problem; that chemistry is the emotional engine of the play and without it, it’s hard to be moved by what moves them. That said, THE EFFECT is worth seeing for the effectiveness of what does work. Through July 8!

Then fasten your seatbelts– it’s going to be an awkward but enlightening night as Neil LaBute’s FAT PIG unveils itself onstage at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. FLAT EARTH THEATRE does it again with its brutally honest, funny, sympathetically played, and astutely directed production of La Bute’s uncompromising look at how society regards fat women. The opening line is a killer and let’s us know exactly where we’re headed.

One day over lunch Helen (Lindsay Eagle) a very large woman who’s ultra comfortable in her voluminous skin, spots Tom (Jordan Lindley) a skinny guy hovering near her table looking for a place to sit; he suddenly says aloud, “pretty big.” ¬†HUH? Does he mean Helen or the room? We’re squirming AND laughing, but that is the question–and Helen immediately takes on the man and his cultural load. The two genuinely hit it off, witty repartee ensues, and lunch eventually leads to a romantic relationship.

She’s sexy, engaging, and clever; he’s conventionally attractive, cautious, and successful, but from the get go, he’s worried about what his snarky co-workers will think. ¬†Lindsay Eagle and Jordan Lindley are terrific separately and together. Eagle is exceedingly appealing in every way, physically and emotionally; her warmth and openness seduce Tom who is straddling his attraction to Helen and his fear of succumbing to peer pressure. Their sexual chemistry is palpable.

I was transfixed by the vulnerability of these performances, and the fearless way the¬†play takes no prisoners. Nothing is left unsaid, especially by Tom’s co-worker Carter. Dustin Teuber brings a distinctive toxicity to his line readings, while somehow offering a glimpse of the pain that fuels his cruelty. So too Kristen Heider as Jeannie, the co-worker Tom used to date; desperation and low self-esteem ooze from every pretty, brittle pore.¬†I couldn’t look away– and you won’t either as the play poignantly takes us right to the edge of an ocean of risk beyond the safe harbor of societal norms and our own limitations. ¬†DO NOT MISS ¬†“FAT PIG” through June 24th!!

Finally there’s DAYS OF ATONEMENT the latest offering by Israeli Stage, now playing at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston. This is the last weekend to see the North American premiere of a physically stripped down production of Hanna Azulay-Hasfari’s play about siblings who gather on Yom Kippur the Jewish day of atonement and the holiest day of the year. Four sisters played by Jackie Davis, Adrianne Krstansky, Ramona Lisa Alexander, and Dana Stern come together to try to figure out what happened to their mother who has not come home. The play ends up being a different kind of homecoming as the sisters begin to fill in the blanks of this complex Moroccan/ Israeli family, their relationship to each other from oldest and most conservative, to youngest and most contemporary, and the parents who raised them in the context of a religion that is constant.

These vivid performances and natural dialogue make the material immediately relatable. The multicultural cast quickly convince us they are sisters; we soon forget that the text by Sephardic playwright Azulay-Hasfari is a translation, and that the setting is a city in southern Israel. Indeed, the play is an exploration of what holds us together despite age, inclination, and socio- cultural orientation. I had trouble with the contrivance of the set up, and the pat conclusions the play comes to. But I did enjoy the brief talkback (the night I was there so was the playwright) but always lead by artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon after each performance. Through June 24!