Alan Ayckbourn's play is set in the near future, when the entertainment industry has descended even further into chattering idiocy than it has today. In a third-rate television studio, Chandler Tate, who was once a brilliant movie auteur, directs a soap opera, using robots in place of live performers and drinking himself silly between scenes. Adam, an American writer visiting the set, notices that one of the actoids is behaving strangely. She emits unprogrammed, unexpected laughs and appears to have human desires. He coaches her in comedy technique, decides to write a script for her, and -- of course -- soon finds himself in love.
The scenes that follow are delicious, both in Ayckbourn's writing and Austgen's performance. With bewildering speed, Jacie learns to read. The text, naturally, is the Book of Genesis. She tries on dresses in an elegant store, astounding the salesgirl and the other patrons with her uncomprehending antics. She causes chaos in a fancy restaurant when she's absorbed too much food and drink and requires emptying. Alone and bewildered in a sleazy hotel, she encounters a prostitute and strains her narrowly logical mind trying to understand the woman's comments. And she's touching as the certainties that have ruled her begin to dissolve under the pressure of human love.
There's almost always a stunning precision to Austgen's work, and here it fits the role perfectly. She manages the astonishing trick of making Jacie mechanical -- rigid movements, small, precise adjustments of the head as the robot-woman figures out how to kiss -- while allowing an increasing humanity to creep into her voice, face and body. In a flaxen wig and short, short skirts that show off her slender legs, Austgen has a physical beauty that manages to remind us simultaneously of a vulnerable Marilyn Monroe and a plastic Barbie doll.
I wish the rest of the production had the crystalline clarity of Austgen's performance. Deliberately overplaying as the other actoids, Jon Gregory and Rhonda Brown seem more like hammy actors in an amateur production than robots. Michael Shalhoub, as the director, begins the play on such a fast, overblown pitch that it takes a while before you realize that he -- unlike some of the other characters on stage -- is human. But he has some nice moments of thoughtfulness and self-realization later in the play. Heather Bean is appealing as programmer Prim Spring. Melanie Cruz has an earnest, low-key groundedness as a studio technician and a rather sweet petulance as a girl in the restaurant. Jordan Young gives Austgen good support as the writer, Adam, and Bryan Marshall communicates an interesting superciliousness as Marmion, the reluctant voice of the wealthy, wheelchair-bound Lester Trainsmith (a stalwart Roger L. Simon). As written, Carla Pepperbloom is the standard stomping, yelling, man-eating boss from hell, and Kristin Walker doesn't look for variation, playing Carla with energy but without subtlety. The English accents are, without exception, appalling. Because her pronunciations are so deliberate -- and she's supposed to be a robot -- Austgen gets away with hers; the rest of the cast is not so lucky. Terry Dodd is usually a meticulous director, so perhaps some of the problems of focus, tone and pacing will iron themselves out over the show's run. As it is, Comic Potential provides an enjoyable evening of theater, leavened by Ayckbourn's wit and Austgen's luminosity.
Along with just a hint of something deeper to think about. It was Czech writer Karel Capek who coined the word "robot" in R.U.R., his dramatic meditation on what it means to be human. But it was his novel, War With the Newts, that came to mind as Comic Potential's surprise ending began to sink in. Like Capek, Ayckbourn shows us that it can be misleading to sentimentalize non-human beings and downright dangerous to assume we understand them.