A powerhouse of a new play by Philadelphia-based playwright Thomas Gibbons makes you think twice about your inner android. It’s called “Uncanny Valley,” and it’s intellectually stimulating, without a hint of fat in the tightly constructed plot.
What’s more, it’s being given a flawless production by InterAct Theatre Company, where Gibbons is playwright in residence. “Uncanny Valley ” is Gibbons’ ninth premiere at InterAct; several have been performed around the country and one of them – “Permanent Collection,” modeled after the controversy over moving the Barnes Foundation collection to Center City — is particularly popular among artistic directors. I have no doubt that “Uncanny Valley” will be the same.
The play takes place about 35 years from now, when a phone is nothing more than a little button we affix to our outer ears and ultra-high technology is a given. It’s about a computer named Julian — when the play opens, he’s nothing more then a life-size head sitting atop a desk at a highly secure tech-research facility.
Opposite Julian sits Claire. Her engineering colleagues have already supplied Julian’s basic algorithms and will continue to add more advanced technologies in what they call “neuro-computing.” It’s Claire’s job to teach Julian how to use his mechanical skills so that he appears as human as possible.
Julian begins by aping her motions — the way she turns her head, the grip she uses to shake a hand, her natural smile. His vocal inflections and reactions are neutral, and Claire teaches him to modify them, and he’s at-the-ready to comply. “Feel better?” she asks him at one point. “If I should, then I do,” he responds.
Julian is no Hal from the film “2001” or personalized operating system from last year’s movie, “Her” — he’s smarter and way more physically advanced. He keeps being given new body parts. Soon he will look like the man in his mid-40s that his engineers envision. And that’s when questions about the natural order of the world will come into play, not in some Planetary Takeover sense but in real-life, everyday concerns.
That’s the brilliance of “Uncanny Valley” — it’s a play about technology that’s wholly concerned with the human condition. The uncanny valley, that endlessly deep pit where we try to understand just what we’ve wrought, is a part of being human.
Gibbons’ exploration of that notion is intense and intriguing in his two-act play of an hour, 45 minutes. InterAct’s cast — the singular actor Frank X and the wonderfully real Sally Mercer — couldn’t be better. Even in his character’s most advanced stage, Frank X appears to be just about human but weirdly, almost indefinably, not. As Mercer’s character begins to question the relationship between a creator and a creation, her performance becomes ever-more impressive.
InterAct’s producing artistic director Seth Rozin stages the show precisely on Nick Embree’s set, a turntable enclosed between scenes by a rounded white wall, as in an antiseptic hospital ward, or an Apple Store – both germane comparisons here. Christopher Colucci’s precise sound design includes techno-chords and Julian’s early machine whirrs. Everything seems genuine.
“Uncanny Valley” is being called a “rolling world premiere,” meaning that the play opens over the course of a season in several cities and in mostly different productions. All the theaters, including InterAct, get to call it a world premiere. In fact, its first-ever full production — its world premiere in the common meaning — was last summer at the American Contemporary Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va. That production went on to an Off-Broadway run this past fall. Another “rolling world premiere” of “Uncanny Valley” opens next week at San Diego Rep.
I hope that in other cities, the production’s as excellent as InterAct’s, and as effective. Not five minutes after I saw the play at its Wednesday opening, I was on my cell phone, dealing with Siri. It sent chills up my spine.
“Uncanny Valley,” produced by InterAct Theatre, runs through April 26 at the Adrienne, on Sansom Street between 20th and 21st Streets. 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.