All Things Entertaining and Cultural
I agree. Thirty-five years is not a long time. 1980 seems on occasion like one summer past.
Yet think of all that has happened within that span. In 1980, most of us were using typewriters although word processing software was available. Our telephones were almost exclusively landlines. Our televisions received about eight channels. Only a few areas of South Philadelphia had cable. Cars were terrestrial yachts, and aside from an occasional Datsun, Honda, VW, or Volvo, few were imports. People died from diseases that have an exponentially greater prospect of cure now. The Internet was enjoyed by a privileged few. Dolly, the sheep, had not been cloned.
Imagining 35 years hence can only conjure more wonders. Thought-provoking playwright Thomas Gibbons sets his sights on mid-21st century robots, models that combine artificial intelligence with lifelike features and movements that are indistinguishable from authentic beings.
Gibbons, in his world premiere play, “Uncanny Valley,” doesn’t have his anthropomorphic automatons plot to take over the Earth or think beyond their programming. He takes a more practical bent and examines what existence might be like for these perfected humanoids and for the flesh-and-blood humans who live among them.
Gibbons is quite thorough is delineating issues and conundra that might arise as the manufactured and the biological co-exist with little variation to cue which is which. He even envisions life together on Earth from the points of view of man and machine. His welter of implications and effects keep us involved in “Uncanny Valley” as we consider the mass of consequences advanced by Julian, a remarkable specimen of technological achievement, and Claire, the veteran scientist/engineer/teacher who trains Julian to be so ineluctably human. We cannot help but pool our reactions and opinions with theirs as a representative from a latter-day team of Dr. Frankensteins discusses life, existence, and rights with her lab’s creation.
It’s all absorbing as you watch Frank X and Sally Mercer go through their individual and interactive paces as Julian and Claire in Seth Rozin’s casually smooth but stately production for Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre. Playwright, actors, and director all offer a lot on which to chew.
The trouble comes after you leave the theater. Gibbons and company have certainly provided enough for to discuss, but “Uncanny Valley” only lightly penetrates an amazingly deep subject, and you might be talking about matters that are germane but that never come up or are developed in the play.
Gibbons supplies a list of repercussions that can be of concern, especially when it is revealed that Julian not only has advanced human faculties, including the ability to discern humor and have emotions, but that he has also had a life’s worth of information transferred from a living person’s brain to his bank of memory cells.
Make that a dying person’s brain. Julian is no ordinary robot. He is the fourth on Earth created to continue the life of human being who has lived and made a place for himself on Earth. He has been commissioned from Claire’s lab by a wealthy man who wanted to exist ad infinitum and, in 2050, has technological means for doing so. The actual Julian’s body and brain are deceased. The mechanical Julian is an exact replica of the model at age 44, the age the dying man chose, and is possessed of all the knowledge the once-alive Julian accrued in twice that many years of living.
How can one fail to be fascinated by that?
One can’t. It’s interesting to see the robot Julian’s development and to regard the myriad legal, moral, and matter-of-fact details he will encounter. Gibbons has Julian and Claire bring these up in front of us. I was impressed by all of the things Gibbons put on the table to discuss and the way Julian and Claire, through the expressive X and Mercer, respond to the various issues as they are raised.
“Uncanny Valley,” alas, never get past the interesting. It remains too much an intellectual play that ponders consequences by mentioning them but which only briefly offers anything overtly dramatic to bring its points home and stamp them indelibly.
“Uncanny Valley” is more an invitation to think that it is a theatrical experience. Rozin uses theatrical development to keep “Uncanny Valley” going at a crisp enough rate and to depict the construction and nurturing of Julian, but Gibbons, in the long run, gives him nothing that stimulates you to do more than cogitate. The headiest confrontation between Julian and Claire, acted well by X and Mercer, seems tame in comparison with the possibilities available to Gibbons to realize this piece more viscerally and render it even more forward-looking and poignant.
I enjoyed hearing the ramifications of Julian having an eternal afterlife. I reveled in hearing all that Gibbons made me consider. I was impressed with the excellent performance of both actors — no surprise given X and Mercer’s consistency and skill — but I was unmoved emotionally and thought, “This is some ado about something,” and longed for a deeper, more textured exploration of Julian’s robust, disease-free, financially secure life after death.
Financial security may not be possible for everyone who commissions Claire’s company to give them eternal life. Julian is a billionaire who has complete confidence he could make his fortune again if he somehow lost or exhausted it.
Meanwhile, one of the developments Gibbons brings up is Julian’s son’s reaction to his dead father remaining around to run the corporation that he founded and of which he is chairman. If a death certificate is issued for an expired body, can a robot, however commissioned and made to be identical to the deceased, and therefore competent to lead, be the legal proprietor of Julian’s real estate and holdings? Does Julian’s son have a legitimate case that his father died, and this new version of his father is a mere mechanical replica with no entitlement to any material or financial property he attained while living?
What is the legal status of Julian the robot, whose components are comprised in a technological company’s model number and whose polymer skin and other parts — eyes, hair, etc. — are described by Claire in the most clinical of terms?
I told you. Heady stuff.
Gibbons goes further. He has Julian speak about being awake 24 hours a day because he has no need to sleep as humans do. Whatever money he has will go further because he doesn’t have to eat. He also doesn’t need health insurance, even though a warranty might come in handy, and he will need coverage if he drives a car, of which he is capable.
Although anatomically correct, he is incapable of having sex, the kinkiness of a potential partner aside. Julian, possessed of his intellect and talent from life can continue in business and never get stale or burnt out, but what is his tax status? How does he relate to biological beings?
As I said, Gibbons delves into a lot of situations. He even addresses what might happen if Julian, familiar with Claire and her life because of the conversations they had during his training, says something personal, and even challenging, to Claire. How might Claire react, even though she as much as anyone created Julian, if she gets angry or hurt by something he says?
Congratulating Gibbons for all he includes, and taking it all under consideration, is an invigorating mental pastime that keeps “Uncanny Valley” buoyant and watchable. Ultimately, all becomes too clinical, too much a cerebral exercise, and “Uncanny Valley” has no residual impact or importance. It lives on the stage, but it also dies there. Our memories and our discussion may give it an afterlife, but it’s one that includes ultimate disappointment in the failure of “Uncanny Valley” to get a dramatic footing and be exciting theatrically as it is intellectually.
“Uncanny Valley” begins in Claire’s lab, which is fairly sterile in the area where she trains Julian and other of her company’s robots but has personal effects, and some professional mementoes on the periphery, to give her workspace some character.
A curved, white screen made up of slats, turns on a revolve to show X as Julian ready for his first lessons in being human. Only X’s head is shown, and it is mounted on a black platform that looks like the base or plinth for a sculpted bust. Mercer’s Claire sits close as she instructs the early-stage Julian to turn his head, to open and close his eyes, and to smile. She is pleased that he responds with alacrity and accuracy.
As the first act proceeds, more and more of Julian is visible. The head becomes a head and a neck, then a head, a neck, a torso, a right arm, and so on until Julian is complete. Once Claire has drilled Julian in the rudiments of human behavior and expression, he will be sent to another lab where the extracted contents of human Julian’s brain will be electronically transferred to mechanical Julian’s circuited data base.
Though X and Mercer perform with as much precision as the learning Julian in this first act, and Claire’s training technique is interesting to behold, the opening half of “Uncanny Valley” remains sterile. You enjoy seeing all that’s happening and believe scenes like this will be possible in 2050, if not before, but you are not gripped by the events or Gibbons’s script. Only interested. Which is enough to keep you going to Act Two.
In the second act, all of the personal accoutrements are missing from Claire’s shelves and walls. With Julian ready to enter the world as his former self, Claire has completed her last assignment and is going to retire to avid gardening and time with her husband, also a scientist who has spent more time in the lab than at home.
A knock on her door’s interrupts Claire’s packing. Her visitor is 44 -year-old Julian, bright-eyed, agile, and ready to conquer the world…again. X is wonderful in the way he makes Julian’s motions lithe and fluid. He gives the mechanical man suave mannerisms and worldly disposition that is quite attractive and winning.
After all, Julian is no ordinary robot. He is about to take the place of someone by taking the bequeathed identity of that man and continuing his life. Julian was even taken to the hospital to see the living Julian, and his son, before he died.
Frank X’s creature is more than prepared to go forward. Though he complains a little about never having to rest or enjoy the comfort of sleep, he is thrilled at his prospects. Remember, he thinks as the actual Julian thought and has his drive and ambition. Heck, he is the actual Julian, except he has a motor and memory chips in lieu of a heart and a brain. (Quick! Call the Wizard!)
Julian and Claire’s conversation is cordial, and Claire is delighted to see how well Julian turned out, but soon the dilemmas Julian faces come up, and eventually the scientist and her pupil argue over a sensitive matter regarding Claire’s marriage. Claire, in her anger, tells Julian he doesn’t even exist and can be eliminated by the turn of a wrench. It’s difficult to hear her say such things, but it is logical. She is human and will scrap like a human.
Claire confronting Julian is about the only theatrically dramatic thing that happens in “Uncanny Valley,” and it’s momentarily, there and gone in a flash. Like the effect of Gibbons’s play.
Frank X is charming as Julian. He affects a lovely innocence in the opening scenes and shows precocious wonder and perceptive insight that tickles Claire and amuses us as Julian progresses on his road to humanness. The charm is blended with poise and an amiable personality when Julian comes to visit in Act Two. X gives you the distinct impression you would want to spend time with the reanimated Julian. He has a quick wit and the spirit of a bon viveur.
Sally Mercer also endows her technician with a lot of humanity. Claire is not an emotionless scientist, even in her earliest sessions with Julian. She takes a maternal turn and is more like a kindergarten teacher who gets joy from a bright or receptive pupil. As Julian becomes more advanced, Claire’s conversations with him take on a more friendly, personal tone. Claire and Julian establish a relationship of sorts. It’s warm, and you see Mercer getting fulfillment out of her work with Julian.
Mercer has the most emotional bit in the play, and she handles Claire’s exasperation with Julian, and the insults that come from it revealing the prejudice even someone involved in artificial life might have towards a robot, with natural and deep-seated reality. You want more of this type of action and begin to wish Julian has scenes with his son or his attorney where more raw tension could be depicted.
Seth Rozin makes the most out of what Gibbons provides. His production is immaculate and clear. All that could be done was done to wring the maximum effect from “Uncanny Valley” and to make sure all remained interesting and well performed.
Nick Embree’s set has a futuristic feel while suiting what you would expect to find in a lab. The white screen on the revolve allows for some quick doctoring to X as Julian obtains limbs. Embree also did a fine job dressing the more personal parts of Claire’s office.
Christopher Colucci’s music is percussive and serves at least two major purposes. It indicates something portentous and momentous is going to happen, and it establishes a futuristic, science fantasy effect.
Peter Whinnery’s lighting is white and lablike. It softens a bit in the second act when Julian and Claire commune as people as not as clinician to subject.
The suit Susan Smythe chooses for Julian is in keeping with the character’s status and taste. X wears it well. Mercer’s costumes are also appropriate for her character.
The title of “Uncanny Valley,” a Mercer’s Claire explains, refers to phenomenon observed in Japanese studies in the 70s when clinicians found the more human a robot or artificial being looked, the less anxiety it would cause humans as it came into their space or approached them. The paradox is if a being became too human, as Julian does in “Uncanny Valley,” the anxiety would increase again. The “uncanny valley” is the happy spot in which humans are comfortable being around realistic automatons.
“Uncanny Valley,” produced by InterAct Theatre, runs through Sunday, April 26, at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $33 with some discounts available and can be obtained by calling 215-568-8079 or by visiting www.interacttheatre.org.