Planned Obsolescence: Uncanny Valley at 59e59

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NY Theater Review By Eric J. Grimm

 

Ethical questions abound in Thomas Gibbons Uncanny Valley, a clever one-act that makes a solid argument for the existence of science-fiction theater. The play, set some forty or fifty years in the future, chronicles the assembly of Julian (Alex Podulke), a robot who must learn to become more human. Neuroscientist Claire (Barbara Kingsley) is tasked with teaching Julian to adapt to his role as a human and takes a motherly approach to his rapid growth process. Julian and Claire’s journey is often disturbing and heartbreaking and this successful production allows their connection to transcend the fantastical nature of the plot.

Gibbons’ script risks falling prey to dramatic conventions, though his characters are so strongly conceived that it’s a pleasure to watch them work through well-tread territory. Claire’s experience with Julian offers her the opportunity to make up for past mistakes as a parent but she may be crossing serious moral boundaries in the process. Much of the play hinges on whether or not Julian could ever be considered human, even if he has the appearance and memories of an actual person. Gibbons takes a balanced approach by posing questions, talking them out, and leaving them unanswered, as they should be. The result is great philosophical fiction; it’s heightened enough to entertain while it considers grim possibilities for the future.

Contemporary American Theater Festival’s production fully realizes the unease and humor of Gibbons’ script. Director Tom Dugdale wisely uses his two actors to create impressive stage portraits that compellingly detail Julian’s journey from head to whole body. Light, sound, and projection are employed organically and serve to enhance the rich performances.

Alex Podulke uses his sharply handsome features to his advantage in seeing Julian through from a machine brimming with information to a mostly convincing humanoid. The play offers him multiple opportunities to play Julian differently as he evolves, and Podulke’s triumph is in making that progression smooth and believable. Barbara Kingsley has no lesser task conveying Claire’s growing attachment to Julian and she succeeds in making Claire as complex as the ethical quandary in which she finds herself. Kingsley gives Claire the affability and sadness of a successful person with unfinished business and gracefully works through Claire’s inner turmoil. Both performers find emotional truth in their characters with solid foundation from the script and production.

www.59e59.org  thru October 26th

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