Uncanny Valley, a play by Thomas Gibbons now having its regional premiere at Benchmark Theatre, raises all kinds of interesting questions without fully exploring them. The script is intriguing, but ultimately this production feels more like a discussion than a theatrical event — despite the clean and thoughtful direction of Rachel Rogers.
Things begin promisingly with a truly startling image, as neurological scientist Claire reveals her creation, a robot named Julian. We watch as Julian is put together, limb by limb, over the course of the first act. Claire is about to retire, her husband suffers from ever-encroaching dementia, and Julian represents the proudest and most significant achievement of her illustrious career.
We’ve been fascinated for centuries — both repelled and delighted — by the idea of not-human creatures who somehow manifest as human. The phrase “uncanny valley” actually refers to the way distress and unease increase as these beings, or non-beings, become more and more like us. And today’s technology adds a complicating dimension. Mechanical devices have already stolen many of our jobs: Computers are even being used for medical diagnosis, though my doctor tells me he looks for all kinds of unquantifiable signs in evaluating his patients’ health, including speech, breathing, skin color, the way the patient navigates the examining table. We laugh when Siri, or the clever folks who program her, jokes with us. "What's the meaning of life?," my grandsons love asking her again and again, and they convulse in giggles when she responds “chocolate,” or “I don’t know, but I think there’s an app for that.” We take orders from our television sets. Driving, we argue with the GPS navigation voice: “Dammit, I don’t want to take that route.” On a more abstract level, scientists debate the possibility of eventually creating artificial intelligence that can think, reason and feel — which means they have to define thinking, reasoning and feeling — while many of the rest of us cling to the idea that nothing artificial can duplicate the creative comings and goings, memory retrieval, ethical questioning, dreams and surprising connections occurring endlessly in our minds.
Gibbons adds another angle. We discover that Julian has been funded by a dying corporate head, a billionaire who wants a 34-year-old version of himself into which his entire psyche can be transferred. In the reality posited by Uncanny Valley, robots live for centuries, which means the world will ultimately be controlled — even more than it is today — by the hyper-wealthy, with predictably awful results.
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In RUR, a play by Czech writer Karel Capek written almost a hundred years ago, and where the word “robot” first appears, the antithesis happens: It’s workers who take over the world. Capek’s robots weren’t made of synthetics like Julian, since those materials didn’t exist then, but of human flesh. Over time, they became exploited as cheap labor everywhere, eventually killing their creators and seizing power. Despite this political angle, Capek, unlike Gibbons, seemed most interested in the gulf between humans and these thinking, acting non-humans, along with the ultimate question: Could they ever be ensouled? When two robots fall in love, the old scientist who oversaw their creation and has been grieving the extinction of humanity, rejoices: “”Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy will, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
Watching Uncanny Valley, we half hope that Julian will develop human feelings, and sometimes he seems to. He can get angry. Perhaps he cares a little for Claire, his maker: At one point he tells her he’s seen grief in her eyes and attempted to alleviate it. Claire herself doesn’t seem to speculate a lot about the meaning of what she’s done, or to explore her own feelings. She’s most vivid when talking about her estranged daughter, who, disapproving of Claire’s work, disappeared from her parents’ life many years earlier. This seems a less than believable plot point, but it is one of the most intriguing in the play. Unfortunately, it’s left infuriatingly unexplored.
Neil Truglio does a good job of communicating Julian’s non- or semi-humanity, moving back and forth between seeming human and purely robotic. Anne Myers is convincing as a brilliant scientist, but Claire is coming to the end of her work life, watching her husband’s brain disintegrate and desperately missing her child, so I would have expected a bit more emotion, both from the script and from Myers’s performance. What this otherwise interesting evening needs is more vitality: a revelation, a jolt of surprise, a bit more juice.
Uncanny Valley, presented through October 13 by Benchmark Theatre,1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-519-9059, benchmarktheatre.com.