Tuesday, October 21, 2014

90. Review of SIGNAL FAILURE (October 20, 2014)

90. SIGNAL FAILURE

Spencer Cowan, Sasha Ellen. Photo: Natalya Chagrin.
 
SIGNAL FAILURE, by Sasha Ellen, is a reasonably well-written but quickly disposable, hour-long British import about two lonely young Londoners finding love through social media, but not, interestingly enough, the Internet, the usual foundation for tales of romance in the age of technology. Now playing  at the Soho Playhouse, this one of those plays that depends largely—although, thankfully, not entirely—on characters who tell you what they’re doing and thinking, rather than dramatizing it directly in action and dialogue. Recent examples include PORT AUTHORITY and BOYS AND GIRLS, not to mention A.R. Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS (in which all the lines are read from correspondence). Only about halfway through do the two characters, Lorna (Sasha Ellen, who also wrote the play) and Brian (Spencer Cowan), break into dialogue, after which both dialogue and direct address are heard. The play, reportedly a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Theater C at 59E59 during its annual Brits Off Broadway series. On Vandam Street, though, it seems to be having trouble filling seats.
Brian’s a chef on late night duty who occupies himself while riding the Underground to and from work by watching how some passengers signal their potential interest in others, but endure the usual missed connections. He discovers a sort of personals column in a daily tabloid that prints messages from such people in the hope the people that they’re eying will read them and reach out. Still depressed by the loss of his girlfriend, whose fate is revealed later on, he begins to play Cupid by submitting messages to see—in a sort of proto-stalker way—how his meddling plays out. He’s thrilled when one of his matches succeeds, but wants to hide when those he’s encouraged encounter “epic” failures.  
Lorna’s a cute office worker, closely attached via the phone to her Mum, who’s equally interested in observing passenger behavior. When Lorna also discovers the column, she starts watching for the people she thinks are thus making contact, and even begins seeking a note that might be aimed at her. Brian notices her constant presence at the places where potential connections are to be made, suspecting at first that she may be a reporter on his trail. One thing leads to another, Brian and Lorna become lovers, she unwittingly learns more about him than she bargained for, the affair crashes, and then . . . well, you don’t need me to tell you what follows.
Ms. Ellen’s lines, with their occasional British lingo and references, are enjoyably bouncy, but her boy meets girl, etc., trope is predictable, the breakup is too contrived, and the secrets each lover has been withholding are not particularly original. The production is about as low-budget as possible, and, while one can accept a set used for multiple locales while composed only of two large boxes and a door-like board (to create a bed for the inevitable romps in the sack), the rather ugly, cheap-looking, canvas backdrop (no set designer is credited), showing graffiti-scrawled walls, should have been left at home. Fortunately, Sherry Koenen’s barebones lighting design makes the most of its limitations. 
Ms. Ellen and Mr. Cowan are personable and believable, each working their charm vibes to the max, although Mr. Cowan—vaguely reminiscent of a young Damian Lewis—tends to overdo his ingratiating smiles and tendency to run his hand through his unkempt hair. Their vehicle, however, mildly endearing as it is, lacks the sparkle and wit to stand out in a crowded New York season.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

87. Review of FOUND (October 16, 2014)


87. FOUND

 
 

As I walked to the subway from the Linda Gross Theater, home to the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of the new musical FOUND, I had to restrain myself from picking up the stray pieces of paper spilling from the trash cans along Eighth Avenue. After all, I’d just seen a show whose raison d’ĂȘtre is the jottings on such detritus, be they napkins, postcards, notebook pages, Post-its, envelopes, letterheads, or even barf bags—that is, anything onto which pen, pencil, crayon, magic marker, lipstick, typewriter, computer printer, or whatever can leave a written impression.
FOUND is based on the experiences of Davy Rothbart, a Chicagoan who, in 2001, founded (no pun intended) a magazine called Found devoted to publishing just such found trash. These experiences have been turned by book writers Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree (who also directed, wonderfully)—with additional material provided by Story Pirates—into a semibiographical tale  about the magazine’s birth and growing pains, as well Davy’s personal dilemmas. Someone else will have to explain how much is truth, how much fiction.
From left: Andrew Call, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.
It all starts on a day during which Davy (Nick Blaemire, appealing) not only is fired from his job at an alternative newspaper but is also mugged and can’t start his car; then, thinking the paper on his windshield is a ticket, he sees that it’s actually a mistakenly placed note to and from total strangers:
MARIO, I FUCKING HATE YOU,
YOU SAID YOU HAD TO WORK—
THEN WHY’S YOUR CAR HERE AT HER PLACE?

YOU’RE A FUCKING LIAR I HATE YOU

I FUCKING HATE YOU. AMBER

PS PAGE ME LATER
 
Davy, unable to find a job, finds more discarded notes and he and his friends/roommates, Mikey D (Daniel Everidge, so good in FALLING, impressive), a bearish, bearded, gay guy, and Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed, recently of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL, memorable), a hip bartender, decide to self-publish a magazine devoted to their growing trove. Davy’s mantra is to find a job he loves doing, with people he loves, so the magazine fills a big hole in his heart and psyche, and provides a theme—hackneyed as it is—for all other unconventional strivers. Davy also discovers that reading other people’s most intimate thoughts makes him feel less alone in the world.
 
From left: Daniel Everidge, Andrew Call, Nick Blaemire, Orville Mendoza. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.
A public reading of their discarded literary remains at Denise’s bar leads to the unlikely meeting between Davy and Kate (Betsy Morgan, spot on), an attractive wannabe TV producer who just happens to have been the writer of one of the notes Davy reads; the note, about her wish to bequeath her skull to a boy she loves, is something he found in a thrift shop book. Kate placed it there when she was in the seventh grade. (Hey, this is musical comedy, not Arthur Miller.)
 
From left: Daniel Everidge, Nick Blaemire, Betsy Morgan, Barrett Wilbert Weed. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.
The readings grow into a tour organized by Denise, and soon there are radio interviews and, through the ambitious Kate’s machinations, a shot at a reality TV series—a la “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” But, as in so many plays, movies, and books about friends creating a mutual enterprise, disagreements arise, the air is fouled, and disappointment follows. Not to worry, things in musical comedy always work out for the best. As per the dramatic situations textbook, the play follows the formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl (or at least seems likely to), with the conventional inclusion of a femme fatale to make it even more familiar. Again, this is comfort theatre, not DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
 
The plot’s predictability, however, isn’t as important as the exceedingly clever way in which everything has been stitched together to create an evening’s divertissement. As Davy, Denise, Mickey D, and Kate move through their tale of triumph, betrayal, idealism, disenchantment, and redemption the many characters they encounter are splendidly incarnated by a perfectly coordinated ensemble of actor-singer-dancers in the versatile persons of Christina Anthony, Andrew Call, Orville Mendoza, Molly Pope, Danny Pudi, and Sandy Rustin.
 
The notes that form the show’s premise become subtextual messages that different members of the ensemble introduce by constantly popping in from the wings to speak them as the original scraps are projected just as they looked when discovered—bad spelling, garbled handwriting, quirky typography, and soiled paper notwitstanding. Notes that are often non sequiturs take on specific meanings when placed in the proper dramatic context; some are funny, some mildly amusing, and others little more than filler. Without the brilliantly imaginative, award-worthy projections of Darrel Maloney, which are often as animated as the performers, this show would lose half its charm.  
 
Not all the notes are used as commentaries on the action, by the way; one, mentioning a fifth-grade class’s misbehavior at a school performance of “Johnny Tremain,” about the Revolutionary War, is used as an excuse for a farcical reimagining of what that misbehavior might have been. A cassette tape with each number having something to do with “booties” gives rise to a funny, rap-influenced sequence.
 
Mr. Overtree’s seamlessly inventive and briskly-paced staging (not to mention the witty interpretations of the notes he elicits from the ensemble), combined with Monica Bill Barnes’s engaging and inventive choreography, make FOUND a constant pleasure to watch; still, in two acts running two hours and 15 minutes, the show stretches its thin material to the point of breaking.
 
Fortunately, the music and original lyrics by Eli Bolin are consistently listenable and likable, ranging in style through all the pop genres, from country to rock to hip-hop to standard ballad. Around half the 28 songs’ lyrics are original, the others taken directly from their sources. Mr. Bolin succeeds in taking words never meant to be sung and adding music to them in a way that makes them remarkably effective.
 
David Korins’s neutral set—a curving wall covered in scraps of paper, and separated into discrete sections for entrances and exits—provides the needed flexibility for an episodic story that ranges freely from locale to locale. Chairs and tables are quickly brought on and off as needed; the dark wooden floor has small pits—two at either side—for the musicians. Justin Townsend's terrific lighting marks him as someone to watch. 
 
Like all those notes it memorializes, it may not be perfect, but many will be glad they found FOUND.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

86. Review of GENERATIONS (October 14, 2013)


86. GENERATIONS
 
In less time than it takes to order, eat, and pay for a meal at the average restaurant you can ingest British playwright Debbie Tucker Green’s GENERATIONS, a 30 minute or so theatrical tone poem in which cooking plays a central role, served up by the Play Company in cooperation with the Soho Rep. Does it have some tasty parts? Yes. Is it well prepared and served? Yes again.  Did it leave me fully satisfied?  Not so much.


From left: Shyko Amos, Khai Toi Bryant, Ntombikhona Diamani. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
As usual at the Soho Rep, the space has been transformed (by designer Amulfo Maldonado) to match the play’s dramatic needs. Powdery red-brown earth resembling what you see on a baseball infield covers the floor; the seating is a wildly eclectic assortment of wooden, plastic, and metal chairs, benches, stools, and crates, which looks like it’s been assembled from some local junkyard. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with red, orange, blue, and yellow sheets of corrugated metal to create a shanty-like South African house. (Of course, no actual home would be as spacious as the one created in the otherwise limited confines of 46 Walker Street.)

A soiled kitchen counter with cooking facilities and implements stands near the center, surrounded by the audience on three sides. An old refrigerator, shabby cabinets and shelves, and other domestic items (including vegetables in plastic bags) line the walls. Local music plays on the radio when you enter, and, if you’re thirsty, chances are you’ll be sipping a bottle of beer purchased in the lobby.

As the play begins, a choir of 13 splendid singers, seated in small groups amid the audience, suddenly rises and begins to sing a cappella (in an undisclosed South African language) and to move rhythmically under the excellent musical direction of Bongi Duma. The words are the names of various people who’ve died, followed by “Another leaves us, another has gone,” which, although not mentioned in the dialogue, alludes, I’m sure, to AIDS victims. (Considering the play’s subject matter and the vagueness of the writing, one could be forgiven for thinking they died of food poisoning.) The play’s music, although often rather lively, is referred to in the script as a “dirge.” During the course of the action, at various moments of emotional intensity, the choir heightens the effect by its chanted interpolations, underscoring the lines.

The acting itself, effectively directed by Leah C. Gardiner, has a rhythmic structure, with its combination of realistic and stylized behavior, as the actors speak Ms. Green’s deliberately repetitious, choppily truncated, elliptical, and often monosyllabic dialogue in which the word “cook” (and variations on it) holds pride of place. At several places, Grandma (Thuli Dumakude) says to Grandad (Jonathan Peck): “I was the cooker—you was the cookless—I was the cooker who coached the cookless. I coached you to cook.” To which he remarks: “You couldn’t cook.” Also important are references to memory, both what is remembered and what forgotten.

What the characters present are the interactions within a family of three generations, Grandma and Grandad; Mama (Ntombikhona Diamini) and Dad (Michael Rogers); and Boyfriend (Mamoudou Athie), Girlfriend (Shyko Amos), and Junior Sister (Khail Toi Bryant). As time passes, the lights (nicely overseen by Matt Frey) gradually go from bright to dim, leaving only kerosene lamps hanging on the walls aglow; what seem at first like minutes actually have been years. The bustling action of the early scenes gradually subsides, a melancholy mood seeps in, and only Grandad and Grandma remain.

What little plot there is circles around the family’s relationship to cooking, the thread that links one generation to another. As the Boyfriend wonders, over and over, about the Girlfriend’s cooking skills, the characters banter, taking up pages of dialogue, about who taught whom to cook, with the words circling back on themselves, emotions rising and falling; meanwhile, as food is prepared, the older folk reminisce about how cooking played a role in their love lives. The Boyfriend and Girlfriend disappear to the chanting of the choir, but the same basic repartee as before continues when they’re gone. Next to leave is Dad, who’s soon followed by Mama.

The final scene, with only the saddened grandparents, hints at the tragedy of AIDS, especially when Grandad says, “This thing. This dying thing. . . . This unease. This dis-ease,” which is about the play’s only specific reference to something other than cooking and eating in this family’s lives. But why and how this specific family succumbed is never addressed, making them instead symbolic of South Africa and not representative of any specific individuals. This, perhaps, is why the South African national anthem is sung by the choir at the end.

GENERATIONS is artistically evocative; however, its insistent ambiguity, which some have found a strength, left me hungry for something more.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

85. Review of IT HAS TO BE YOU (October 5, 2014)

85. IT HAS TO BE YOU
 
 


Many people have had the experience of seeing a widowed, aging parent, whose assets they one day hoped to inherit, disappoint them by marrying anew, even perhaps at an age when many others are in their dotage or suffering from a fatal illness. Usually, such marriages, however they may affect the financial dreams of the children involved, are between people of comparable age, so the children, whatever their objections are on other grounds, can’t make much of a fuss about how old the new partner is.
Catherine Butterfield, Adam Ferrara, Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Kim T. Sharp.
If an elderly father were to marry a much younger woman, though, there would certainly be suspicions of gold-digging intentions on the lady’s part, but such situations are common enough not to raise too many eyebrows, unless the amount of money involved is egregious; remember the scandal when actress Anna Nicole Smith wed the billionaire J. Howard Marshall, when Ms. Smith was 26 and Mr. Marshall 89? On the other hand, for a wealthy woman in her 80s to marry a man younger than half her age is rather rare, which is why the late-life marriage of Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm was news. In 2004, when celebrating her 87th birthday at Sardi’s, the still glamorous Ms. Holm shocked her guests by using the occasion to marry her 41-year-old, opera singer boyfriend, Frank Basile, whom she had met in 1999. Two years earlier, her worried sons began seeking ways to protect Ms. Holm’s $13 million in assets; after she died, in 2012, at 95, the costly legal battle that had begun between the sons and Mr. Basile centered on the sale of the late actress’s expensive Central Park West apartment.
Regardless of whether both parties were truly in love, with Ms. Holm’s money being secondary to Mr. Basile’s happiness, the subject of such a relationship—elderly woman and prime-of-life man—and its effect on the woman’s grown children, certainly raises interesting dramatic possibilities. Catherine Butterfield—the author of IT HAS TO BE YOU, the December-May romantic comedy at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (in the Abingdon Theatre Complex)—says that Ms. Holm’s story was her inspiration, but that doesn’t mean the play is about the star. Further, there’s only a 27-year separation between the still hot-to-trot heroine, who’s a mere septuagenarian, and her gerontophile Romeo.
In the play, Mindy (Ms. Butterfield, the playwright), a Nyack realtor in her late 40s, and her brother Frank (Adam Ferrara), five years younger, who runs a failing New Jersey tuxedo shop, rush to the home of Dorothy (Peggy J. Scott), their well-to-do, well-preserved, 75-year-old, mother, when they learn from a neighbor that she’s been dancing naked on the balcony of her lovely Massachusetts home. They’re convinced that Mom is sinking into dementia and that it’s time to move her into a senior residence; although they love Dorothy, their concern about her is partly rooted in the selfish hope (based on real need, especially on Frank’s part) that they’ll share in the sale of her valuable home. When they arrive they discover the cause of her eccentric behavior is Burt (Peter Davenport), the good-looking, 48-year old piano tuner, painter, and gardening maven, with whom she’s been living. They insultingly call him a “gardener,” just as the Holm offspring dismissed Basile as a “waiter.”
The result is a lightweight play written with just enough wisecracking charm to keep you gently engaged during its 90 minutes, but one whose premise is never really convincing and whose performance doesn’t fully satisfy. Is Burt the gigolo Mindy and Frank accuse him of being, out to steal Dorothy’s riches from under them? Can he seriously be in love with Dot, as he calls her? Do Mindy and Frank have the right to deprive their mother of her happiness?
When Jed (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), Dorothy’s youngest (and favorite) child, a gay set decorator, arrives from Hollywood, things move in a new but predictable direction. Before the play ends, however, a broken heart will be mended and the famous Isham Jones-Gus Kahn tune referenced by the play’s title will, when sung at the piano, offer pleasantly sentimental solace to both those on stage and those in the audience.
Ms. Butterfield has a wholly acceptable idea in questioning the motives of otherwise fond children who can’t find happiness in their own love lives yet consider it perfectly okay to interfere in what gives their parent joy on the grounds of what they deem its unseemliness. However, the free-spirited Dorothy, who’s been making artistic studies of her nude body for years (to her children’s surprise), and is even now engaged in an art project involving taking pictures of herself every day at 3:00 p.m., must surely have behaved unconventionally before this. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that her kids are so stunned by her current actions as to think they befit placing her in a home. be
There are other stretches, including the hokey resolution, but, let’s face it, you need stronger playwriting elastic—despite the example of the Holms-Basile affair—if you expect an audience to buy a torrid romance between a woman nearly three decades years older than her beau, especially one who’s spent nearly half a century in the closet. Older man, much younger woman? Fine. We see such stories every day. Older woman, younger man? Of course, as long as the gap isn't that large. It’s not hard to accept the 33-year-old Ben Foster being with the 47-year-old Robin Wright, or Hugh Jackman being married to a woman 13 years older, but the Dorothy and Burt romance doesn’t go down quite so easily, even with 19 years shaved off the Holm-Basile relationship. There’s certainly a lot of humorous potential in what goes on between such a couple in private, but barely anything of the sort makes its way into Ms. Butterfield’s comedy, which aims to build up sympathy for Dorothy’s late-blooming passion. Anyone who objects is just a geriatric-hating reactionary with no respect for old people’s individuality.
A woman of 75—even one with a youthful sparkle who dyes her perfectly coiffed hair blond, adds red streaks for highlights, and wears skintight pants and colorful chiffon ops (costumes are by Sherry Martinez) that make her look more like a denizen of Boca Raton than upscale Massachusetts—is a hard sell as an overripe cougar. Regardless of how annoyingly the obnoxious Mindy and the more hapless Frank go about sticking their nose into the affair, they definitely can be excused for finding the whole thing icky.
Perhaps the play might work better if it weren’t played so straightforwardly. The Strelsin Theatre is a tiny room seating 60 around a postage stamp acting area, here designed on  a shoestring by Ian Paul Guzzone, and lit by Michael Megliolia, to comprise several locales, but mainly Dorothy’s elegant home. Such an intimate space certainly needs a toned-down approach from director Stuart Ross, but too low key a performance is bound to dampen the spirited comic mood the piece requires; this, though, is essentially what happens. At the performance I saw, the pacing tended to drag, the smoothly professional cast (apart from the excellent Ms. Scott) failed to glow, and too many of Ms. Butterfield’s sprightly zingers were thrown away. I chuckled, but laughs were sparse; it was champagne without the fizz. Lacking more emphasis on its comedy, the play couldn’t survive its contrivances. Which is why, when the play ends, with Dorothy and Burt singing “It Had to Be You” to each other, they should be looking deeply into each other’s eyes, wondering if it’s really true.

Friday, October 10, 2014

84. Review of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (October 9, 2014)

84. THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME



 
This is only the second play directed by Marianne Elliott I’ve ever seen, the other being WAR HORSE. Still, after experiencing her production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, now at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre following its premiere at Britain’s National Theatre and a hit West End run (ended when the theatre’s roof collapsed), I’m ready to announce that she’s one of the most imaginative, yet accessible, directors now working in the English-speaking theatre. Both WAR HORSE and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT are works with wide popular appeal, although the latter, for all its powerful emotional undertow, inclines a bit more toward the cerebral, while WAR HORSE is aimed entirely at your heart. Regardless, both will remain among my most memorable theatrical experiences.

Excellently adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT is about a 15-year-old boy, Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp; Taylor Trensch at matinees), living in Wiltshire, whose behavioral attributes strongly suggest Asperger’s, although no specific condition is ever mentioned. A mathematical savant, with encyclopedic knowledge of many things, Christopher aspires to be an astronaut. While high functioning, as the expression goes, he can be very difficult because of his severe lack of social skills, his inability to lie (in contrast to the lying that surrounds him), and his incomprehension of idiomatic expressions and even the simplest metaphors (like being the apple of someone’s eye). If he’s physically touched by another person he goes ballistic, and the best his usually brusque dad, Ed (Ian Barford, just right), can manage is a very carefully applied high five. You have to get past Christopher’s emotional limitations before you can learn to love him, which may be why the play is not as moving as WAR HORSE was.

The play begins with a blast of sound and light to reveal Christopher standing over the dead body of Wellington, a neighbor’s dog, stabbed to death with a garden fork (pitchfork). Despite Ed’s very strong objections, Christopher—a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast—determines to investigate the crime and find out who the killer is (curiosity killed the cat, not the dog), keeping a notebook of his findings. Christopher has been told by Ed that his mother, Judy (Enid Graham, very good), died of a heart ailment. When the boy, in the course of his investigation, discovers a hidden cache of letters, he embarks on a dangerous journey to London to shed light on this additional mystery.



Alex Sharp and cast of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The story, itself not especially complex, and potentially capable of a more realistic staging, requires many scenes and locales, giving it a cinematic sweep. Much of the action is narrated in Act one from Christopher’s notebook by Siobhan, although she does so as a conduit for the boy’s thoughts rather than as something she herself is saying. In Act two, the notebook, at her suggestion, has been transformed by Christopher into a play, and there are even self-referential comments to this effect between Siobhan and the audience. Christopher must overcome his negative response to playacting, however, which he considers another form of deceit.

The performance moves swiftly from moment to moment by using Bunny Christie’s abstract set, which is little more than a large black box built in forced perspective, with walls and raked floor covered in large, graph-like, white lines. The rear wall can move forward and backward, altering the sense of space. Traps in the floor, compartments in the walls, and sliding panels that create instant doors offer endless possibilities for scenic flexibility. Electrical elements built into the floor and walls allow for a remarkable number of digital effects that become especially vivid during Christopher’s trip as he negotiates the overwhelmingly complex world he encounters. A scene in an underground station when he jumps onto the tracks to retrieve his rat seems harrowingly realistic, despite its obvious artificiality. Another scene, which creates the impression of an escalator, has to be seen to be appreciated. Then there’s the miniature version of London Christopher creates, complete with a lighted train traveling through it . . . 

Ms. Elliott, and her equally brilliant choreographers, Scott Graham and Stephen Hoggett, using the company as an ensemble, have created as exciting a theatrical experience as you’re likely to encounter in a Broadway theatre. Aside from the actor playing Christopher, all the actors, even those playing principal roles, become part of the ensemble for crowd scenes. At times, an actor turns into a piece of furniture for Christopher to lean against. The ensemble rapidly moves a minimum of small boxes into place to serve a variety of purposes, and even Christopher is moved around by two of them when he’s held aloft in a sideways position as he runs around the walls. Aside from Mr. Barford, Ms. Graham, and  Ms. Faridany each handles just one named character, while the other actors play as many as eight roles. The lighting design (by Paul Constable), sound design (Ian Dickinson), and original score (Adrian Sutton) work in conjunction to enhance startling scene changes, aided by the video projections of Finn Ross. Ms. Christie’s carefully coordinated everyday costumes further assist the visual effectiveness of the play.

There are no missteps visible, and even the performance at the end of a sweet little puppy is perfectly calculated to offer just the right jot of sentimentality to offset Christopher’s emotional coolness. THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is topped off by a superb performance by recent Juilliard graduate Alex Sharp, making his professional debut, who uses his body, voice, and facial expressions in a myriad of interesting ways to embody Christopher’s troubled but eternally resilient essence. Surely, though, if you’ve read this far, you must be curious to find out for yourself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

83. Review of UNCANNY VALLEY (October 7, 2014)

83. UNCANNY VALLEY
 
 
 

One thing I guarantee about Thomas Gibbons’s UNCANNY VALLEY at 59E59 Theaters is that, if you see it with a friend, you’re going to want to talk about it when you leave. And, while the production is excellent, you’ll be even more intrigued by the subject matter, the use of scientific research and technology to create a robot so humanlike you’d have a hard time telling the difference. UNCANNY VALLEY is making its local premiere after first being seen at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia.
Alex Podulke, Barbara Kingsley. Photo: Seth Freeman.

Of course, the play, which has overtones of the Frankenstein’s monster story (there’s even a self-reflexive crack about “the villagers . . . gathering with torches and pitchforks”), owes a debt to Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1922), which gave the world the word “robot,” and to all those films—too many to mention—in which artificial intelligence plays a crucial part, including PROMETHEUS (2012). In fact, Michael Fassbender’s performance as the robot David in that movie suggests a precedent for that of Alex Podulke, who plays the robot Julian in UNCANNY VALLEY.
Alex Podulke, Barbara Kingsley. Photo: Seth Fre
The subject is very hot right now, and there’s even another play of the same title playing at the Brick Theatre in Williamsburg from October 9-18; it’s unlikely that the stage and screen are going to stop finding ways to keep the cyborgs coming. The reason for the similarity in titles is because “uncanny valley” is a familiar term within the field of artificial intelligence. It refers to the quantifiable discomfort felt by people when confronted by androids whose appearance and behavior, no matter how close they are to seeming human, are not fully lifelike. 
Mr. Gibbons’s 90-minute one-act, smoothly staged by Tom Dugdale, is a two hander set in the office of Claire (Barbara Kingsley), a septuagenarian neuroscientist in a life-extension lab, who’s been training Julian to behave like a human being. When we first see him he’s just a head on a desk, learning facial expressions. Next we see the head on an armless torso, then with an arm attached, after which another arm is attached. Finally, he gets legs and wanders about the office with awkward deliberation, testing out his new accessories. As Julian slowly takes on all the physical attributes of a living man, he and Claire engage in a series of fascinating discussions about the process of becoming human.
All this leads to the revelation that Julian’s purpose is to provide a simulacrum of a billionaire with the same name, who’s dying of cancer and who’s spent $340 million to have Julian created so that his memories and personality can be downloaded into the robot, allowing him to continue running the late billionaire’s huge business and enjoying life. You may ask: is this really immortality (or something like it)? How the dead billionaire can appreciate this afterlife is never addressed.
The play is set in “the not too distant future,” and we’re told that 19 other such robots are being developed elsewhere. When the story breaks, and people (actual ones, that is) begin to express discomfort with the presence of robots so real they can pass for human, the possibility of advocating for robots’ rights is broached, just as it was in a satirical segment on "The Colbert Report"; its talking head is a sibling of the one in UNCANNY VALLEY. 
Despite the occasional laugh lines, UNCANNY VALLEY is a thoughtful, serious play. In its eighth and final scene, the previously clumsy robot enters, smartly dressed, a lock of his previously pasted down hair hanging casually, and his movements graceful and comfortable, albeit with a perfectly modulated hint of the control necessary to make them seem that way. Julian is having a major crisis with “his” son Paul, from whom the late billionaire was alienated; Paul is contesting Julian’s continuing to be the head of the family business, since he’s a robot, not a human, and Julian wants Claire to testify on his behalf in court. But Julian goes too far with regard to his interference in Claire’s personal life, and the play moves into mildly melodramatic territory.
Nevertheless, the sudden conflict serves to illuminate some of the potential moral, ethical, and legal issues that robots like Julian are likely to precipitate, if they ever get to where they’re as convincing as Julian. In fact, Julian, for all his being little more than wiring and algorithms, is constantly evolving. He even looks forward to not only being able to pleasure a sex partner, but to feeling sexual stimulation himself.
When you enter Theater B at 59E59 you notice that scene designer Jesse Dreikosen has hidden his set behind a crinkly white curtain on which a live TV image of the audience is projected. You may, perhaps, spend the preshow minutes pretending that you’re not looking at yourself. Later, a huge image of Julian’s eerily smiling face, eyes staring directly at you, fills the curtain’s expanse. (Video design is by Michael McKowen.) The windowless office, wooden floor and all, with opaque glass walls upstage, and a wall of shelves bearing Claire’s artifacts (including an earlier robot’s head), sets the right tone. Therese Bruck’s costumes and John Ambrosone’s lighting do their work unobtrusively and well. A marvelous sound design by Elisheba Ittoop offers just the right tone of strangeness to the atmosphere.
Barbara Kingsley, a petite, sylphlike, grandmotherly actress, plays Claire with the proper balance of friendliness, acumen, and sensitivity, especially when her personal life—involving a husband with dementia and a daughter who abandoned her—is involved. Like Fassbender, Alex Podulke has the kind of handsome, clean-lined, generalized features that make him seem both natural and unnatural when Julian speaks in his soft-edged, precisely articulated voice, and produces his programmed facial expressions and bodily movements. Even when he morphs into a believable human toward the end, he never quite loses that mildly unnerving quality that makes you wonder what’s really ticking inside.