By Thomas Gibbons; Directed by Tom Dugdale
Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 10.26.14
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Sarah Weber on 10.9.14
Alex Podulke (as Julian) and Barbara Kingsley (as Claire) in Uncanny Valley. Photo by Seth Freeman.
BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful science fiction story that showcases brilliant acting.
Science Fiction – a genre that, in one hand, can be a highly imaginative and intelligent work of art and, in another hand, can so easily tumble down the dark abyss of despicably corny storytelling. Thankfully Thomas Gibbons has done an excellent job at both his research and at channeling his inner Mary Shelly and Isaac Asimov. Or perhaps Gibbons is secretly the combined memories of Shelly and Asimov, parading around in a body of wires and synthetic skin. I guess we will never know. (Unless he fails Phillip K. Dick’s empathy test, from the sci-fi novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?)
In this not-so-distant future, the billionaire Julian (Alex Podulke) has commissioned a team of scientists to create an android of himself so that he may “live on” to manage his enormous corporation. Claire (Barbara Kingsley) is a pioneer in the field of neuroscience and it is her task to teach the new Julian how to be human. Julian is by no means Claire’s first android, yet keeping her professionalism intact proves difficult as the line between her science and her maternal instincts becomes a blur. There is an acute self-awareness in Julian that failed to appear in her previous creations. She desires to watch him develop and change for both scientific inquiry and to fill the spaces left by her shortcomings as a parent. But Claire must face the reality that Julian was never meant to be her creation to begin with – he is as much an example of scientific progress as he is a desperate attempt by a very rich man to hold on to his money forever. Thus Julian must be released into a world that has yet decided whether he is to be treated as a human or a monster.
Coupled with Gibbon’s superb writing are the actors’ warm and honest performances. Podulke’s performance is especially mesmerizing as he flows between being robotic and being human. As the story progresses we watch Julian grow into his humanness one body part at a time, literally. He begins as head, then he is given a torso, then one arm, then the other, and so on. With each addition Podulke seamlessly traverses the wide spectrum between the machine and the human until the end when Julian’s humanness is more uncanny than convincing. Polduke’s attention to physical detail is simply wondrous. Similarly, Kingsley portrays a woman who increasingly has trouble keeping her reason and her regrets in line, and she performs this inner turmoil with grace.
Tom Dugdale’s direction is well done, as is the set design by Jesse Dreikosen. Indeed the entire production is a beautiful and cohesive unit; the passion that has been poured into its creation is clearly evident. The only point in the show that falters is the last scene. The dialogue rambles, with one too many eleventh hour moments, and certain staging choices are confusing. For example, while Julian and Claire argue, Julian briefly breaks the fourth wall seemingly without any reason besides the fact that he can.
That being said, Uncanny Valley is a thoughtful play that features incredible performers. Part of the beauty of science fiction is how an author can use future scientific accomplishments to address contemporary issues. Gibbons uses the continuing advancements of robotics and neuroscience to discuss creation – the creation of an android much in the same way we may create a child. And he continues a long standing tradition in sci-fi to invite the audience to consider not only the consequences of playing creator, but how we must take responsibility for those consequences. In watching android Julian slowly evolve we begin to feel responsible for his life, too. And we share the burden of his outcome with Claire and the billionaire who commissioned his everlasting existence.
(Uncanny Valley plays at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street, through October 26th. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:15PM; Fridays at 8:15PM, Saturdays at 2:15PM and 8:15PM; Sundays at 3:15PM and 7:15PM. Tickets are $35 and are available at www.59e59.org or by calling 212.279.4200)