Uncanny Valley, A New Play Performed In A Small Theater (I Like Small Theaters)

An early moment in Uncanny Valley (photo by InterAct Theatre Company)
An early moment in Uncanny Valley (photo by InterAct Theatre Company)

This past weekend my wife and I went with friends to see a new play, Uncanny Valley, at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theatre. The Adrienne contains four small performance spaces within its floors. I felt right at home in the ground floor theater where Uncanny Valley was staged, because I like small theaters.

Thomas Gibbons wrote Uncanny Valley. He is playwright-in-residence for InterAct Theatre Company, one of the groups using the Adrienne’s rooms. Gibbons is a talented writer. Some of his plays, such as Permanent Collection and Bee-luther-hatchee, have examined America’s race relations in sharply-focused scenarios. Uncanny Valley finds Gibbons exploring what for him is new subject matter. The play revolves around the high tech lab creation, in the not-too-distant future, of an Artificial Intelligence humanoid who, through training and electronic wizardry, comes to appear, emote and think like actual flesh and blood.

I have a talent for missing points and for not fully grasping situations. I’ve no doubt that this might be true for my understanding of Uncanny Valley. Rightly or wrongly, what I mainly came away with by the end of the play are two notions. First, that devising an AI creature is risky, as unexpected consequences may occur down the line. And second, that some humans don’t want to analyze their emotional shortcomings. I can’t say that any of this broke new ground for me.

Still, I enjoyed Uncanny Valley quite a lot. The actors in this two character play, Frank X as the AI gent and Sally Mercer as an AI programmer, work their roles well. The story unfolds intriguingly and at a well-controlled pace. Gibbons’ dialogue is crisp and usually rings true.

I doubt, though, if I’d have had as good an experience if I had seen the play in a larger theater. InterAct’s theater at the Adrienne seats around 100. Its intimacy can’t but help allow the audience to be drawn in. At the start of the play, Frank X’s character, Julian, seems to be nothing more than a head poking out of a table. Julian’s other body parts haven’t been attached yet. Facing him sits Claire, the programmer. Claire is teaching rudimentary facial movements to Julian, whose training at this point obviously is in its infancy. I sat a mere 20 feet from the stage, a fascinated witness to these early proceedings. From 75 or more feet away, I wouldn’t have felt as involved.

Is a smaller theater always better than a bigger? Generally I’d say yes, especially for dramas and comedies. No question that I tend to opt for the small, where I almost always have a decent or better-than-decent time, despite any deficiencies in acting or script. Being close to the action makes up a good bit for those drawbacks.

At larger places, the experience, at least for me, is more hit or miss. A few years ago I loved the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot at Philadelphia’s very roomy Academy of Music. It seats 2,900. I was at least 100 feet from the actors. So much was happening on stage with a dizzying parade of characters, though, that distance from the stage allowed visual perspective. Plus, the theater crew had the sound balanced well, always a good thing.

Not the case, unfortunately, for In The Heights, a musical my wife and I took in a year or two ago. We saw it at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, which claims the title of America’s oldest theater (it began in 1809). The Walnut seats 1,000. We were in the mezzanine, hardly a mile from the stage, but not close enough. That wouldn’t have mattered as much if the sound quality had been good. It wasn’t. The dialogue was hard to make out, despite the actors being mic-ed. The musical numbers were a sonic mess, lyrics usually lost in a high decibel onslaught of instruments. This wasn’t a case of a boomer’s bad hearing. A few people seated near us, and a good bit younger than us, grumbled about the audio too.