The Chinese Room, by Michael West. Directed by James MacDonald. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Bryan F. O'Byrne and Elliot Trainor; photo: Daniel Rader
"Still the gold standard in Humandroid engineering."
Sue Jean Kim; photo: Daniel Rader
"Memory, itself, is not a thing," insists Frank, a biotech engineer discussing that elusive element of the human mind with a humandroid named Daniel who is channeling the ill and incapable Hal, Frank's partner in a science-technology business creating human-like androids. From his bed, Hal has forced Frank out of the business he created. Daniel has been sent to retrieve files and all other materials relative to the business from Frank's home. The home is occupied by his wife, Lily, whose mind has been slipping away, their son Zack whose inquisitive nature is becoming alarming and a girl-of-all-work, Susannah.
Frank's attitude toward Daniel and the others is alarming in and of itself. He treats them all as inferiors and slowly we come to realize that what is precious about the lives of these people is that they are not necessarily people at all."If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Daniel asks (the second time on this particular day that I heard that Shakespeare line - the other at Shakespeare and Company's "The Merchant of Venice" where it had a very different, yet similar, meaning). His murder is a secondary momentary cessation of hostilities for being a model humandroid he is not the only sample of a Daniel.
This Sci-Fi Mystery Melodrama Comedy is a remarkable play, actually, one in which we - like the characters - get to question the realities of life as we live it today. The arguments about life, its quality, its meaning and its value all resonate with utter clarity and what is so patently unreal become more real than our own meagre existence. Michael West's provocative script has been granted the genius combination of a director who has been able to realize the author's vision and a cast that plays every bizarre nuance that these humandroids live through.
Brian F. O'Byrne plays Frank who is fighting to protect his life's work, his humanity in the face of betrayal by his partner and his relationships with those around him who give his life purpose and meaning. From his opening e-mail monologue through his final transformation of necessity and generosity the actor plays the anger, angst and total humanity of Frank. He is a man driven through despair to complete and protect what is his and that includes his young son Zack whose own needs and his very adult perceptions are nerve-wracking. O'Byrne plays with an intensity that is wearing. He provides a complete picture of this man who has difficulty controling himself and his needs.
As Zack, young Elliot Trainor - a fifth grader - matches O'Byrne wonderfully. He plays with an adult strength that is remarkable. His father's live-in help, Susannah, is played with a simply incredible science-fiction manner by Sue Jean Kim. She brings the most bizarre reality to an android human who can overheat and jam and she does this more than once in ways that are both startling and peculiar and leave you wondering if she is, perhaps, a robot and not a living actress.
The third person in this play who is much more honestly a humandroid is Daniel played by Carson Elrod. This is a dramatic, comic, physically entrancing performance that tells you everything you need to know about Frank's invention whether you want to know about it or not. So much of the time Elrod is using his body to portray two individuals simultaneously and it is a wonder that anyone can maintain two simultaneous identities without losing either one of them. There should be some sort of special award for doing what he does in this play.
Brian F. O'Byrne and Carson Elrod; photo: Daniel Rader
Laila Robins; photo: Daniel Rader
Laila Robins plays Frank's wife whose reality has slipped into a different realm altogether. As brilliantly played here Lily leaves us wondering about the full-term of human life and where in it reality and imagination meet and fight for domination. Seemingly flesh-and-blood (not that the droids aren't also) we wonder if perhaps she is prototype A, the first in a long line of humandroids or if, perhaps, it is her honest humanity that has inspired what has been produced later. While Frank insists he has forgotten some things, the truth here is that Lily has forgotten most things and Susannah has been given some of Lily's most precious memories to contemplate as her own. West plays with the idea of transference in different ways in this play and it is this that is the most thought-provoking element of the piece rather than the more blatant and visually exciting science fiction factors.
Director James MacDonald has done a wonderful job keeping this play in motion and moving the characters into believable reality. On a set by Dane Laffrey which is too real in some ways the director has given us honesty in a most peculiar way. He has brought to life with the aid of such talented actors the most remarkable creations of the season and moved them through their individually peculiar experiences. They wear ideal costumes by Jessica Pabst, some of which must be replaced for each performance. Eric Southern has provided an intricate, emotional lighting plot and the sound design provided by Daniel Kluger is the most necessary and well-wrought sound plot of the season, without which the play would not be as enthralling. Fight Director Thomas Schall provides the physical thrills for the piece.
I had no idea going in that this play would be so fascinating, so encompassing of ideas and ideals. We are living a modern age where the imaginative concepts in this play could easily become, in short order, our own reality. How well prepared we may be for this inevitabilty is evident in the work on this stage.
The Chinese Room, a world premiere, plays at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance's Nikos Stage, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 23. For information and tickets call the Williamstown Theatre Festival box office axt 413-597-3400 or go on line at WTFestival.org.