Do android playwrights dream of electric critics?

Presenter Bruce Duncan, robot Bina48, and playwright Nicholas Wardigo
Presenter Bruce Duncan, robot Bina48, and playwright Nicholas Wardigo

As usual, let me start this post by encouraging you to check out the latest episodes of Martinis with Nick.  Episode 1.4 features director David O’Connor, juggling, and some very sexy shots of me stuffing a cephalopod.  Episode 1.5 features actor and director Charlotte Northeast and me drinking in a living room fort.

As it happens, my last fortnight has been relatively theater-free.  There was a cool-sounding reading last week of Doug Williams’ latest piece, but somehow I didn’t quite get there.  So, instead, I’m going to talk a little about a play I saw a couple of weeks ago.  It’s Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, and it enjoyed its world premiere at InterAct Theatre, and I’ve no doubt that this piece will go on to many other productions elsewhere.

Before I dive into it, let me make a little disclaimer.  Somehow, I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation in this business for being Philadelphia’s “science fiction” playwright, despite the fact that I’ve only written two plays I would categorize, loosely, as “science fiction.”  I mention this because I have some negative stuff to say about Tom’s play, and I would hate for anyone to think I have some sort of weird agenda against other science fiction plays.  I assure you, I would love to see more science fiction plays.

The plot of Uncanny Valley is that someone is creating a kickass artificial intelligence that will perfectly imitate a human which, we learn partway through, is going to be the receptacle for the mind of a dying billionaire.  Variations on this plot have been floating around for a very long time in sci-fi circles (most recently and cringingly, the Johnny Depp movie Transcendence), but I doubt it’s ever been used in the theater world, at least in a hefty production like this, so it’s probably fresh for your general theater audience.  Also, Tom is a terrific writer and can pull off cool dialogue like nobody’s business, so what he came up with moves and sounds a hell of a lot better than the majority of the stuff in the pulp magazines.

The problem is the setup.  The entire play is comprised of a series of interviews between the AI and a female programmer/roboticist/psychologist.  Never mind, for the moment, that this is a complete ripoff of Asimov’s I, Robot (and I know that, because I ripped it off for a short play I wrote in 1990 called The Atheist), Tom isn’t doing himself any favors with this setup.  One of the principal questions any playwright should ask himself during any scene is, “Why doesn’t this character leave the room?”  Because if there isn’t a compelling reason, then there’s no blood in the scene.

In Uncanny Valley, Julian (the robot) can’t leave because he doesn’t have any legs.  And Clair (the robopsychologist) doesn’t leave because this is her job.  It’s not that either reason doesn’t make logical sense, it’s that the reasons aren’t dramatic.  If they don’t want anything from one another, then they can’t try to negotiate or dominate or coax or steal or kill to get what they want, and that’s nine-tenths of a playwright’s toolbox.  It’s like building a chair using only pliers.

Not that it hasn’t been done, but now we’re entering Beckett territory, and that’s not what this play is.  This is a play of ideas, and some intriguing ones.  If someone downloads his consciousness, does he get to keep his stuff, or is he legally dead, and his stuff should go to his descendants?  Should we pursue immortality, and if we do, should it only belong to the ultra-wealthy?  Is a perfect simulation of a brain the same as the brain, itself?  If you coded your life into a computer, would you leave out the painful parts?  And if you did, would that edited consciousness still be you?

Heady stuff.  And well-written.  And well-argued from various viewpoints.  But without anybody really wanting anything, not particularly dramatic.  There’s a journey of sorts, but it doesn’t feel compelling to me, and when the play ends, I don’t feel like I’ve arrived anywhere.

Anyway, I love Tom’s writing, and I love Permanent Collection, and I’m glad he’s stretching out into other avenues of writing, and I love that someone’s trying to bring more science fiction into the theater world.  Also, on the night Aurora and I attended the show, we got to meet a real AI (Bina48) and one of her creators, Bruce Duncan.  I’m not saying she was Data from Star Trek, but it was creepy to consider that something as seemingly complex as conversation can, in theory, be converted into lines of code.  Thanks to the good people at InterAct Theatre for creeping me out.

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