Uncanny Valley is a two-hander even though one of its characters doesn’t have two hands until scene four. When we first meet Julian (Alex Podulke) he is just a disembodied mechanical head mounted atop the office desk of his maker, Claire (Barbara Kingsley). As the weeks roll on, he grows ever more complete, in ways that will both amaze and nearly devastate Claire, and accompanied by the kind of humanities lessons already familiar to audiences who have seen2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek: The Next Generation, or any sci-fi tale where a cyborg outgrows his artificial laugh to become recognizably mortal.
As you enter the theater, a white curtain hung across the stage catches the eye, and as you take your seat you notice that something is being projected upon it. It is the audience itself, looking a bit abstract against the folds of the silky fabric. Still, many of us wave at ourselves, or more to director Tom Dugdale’s point, we wave to the containers that hold ourselves. Then the curtain parts and we watch Claire teach Julian the basics of human expression while providing us with enough exposition to get an idea of what’s in store for the next 90 minutes. By the time Julian has his first arm installed, Claire is ready to hand him a mirror and ask the loaded question, “Would you like to see yourself?”
From there, the play goes on to explore even bigger questions. What truly defines consciousness? Is the pattern of old folks giving way to their young the only acceptable destiny for mankind? At one point, Claire describes an early cyborg prototype as “fascinating without being interesting.” Well, if playwright Thomas Gibbons wants to offer up that ripe piece of critic bait, I won’t deny him. Sometimes his exploration is just that. But at other times, the methodology works. For example, when Julian finally gets his legs, he swaggers across the stage like John Wayne, only to be brought to a staggering halt when Claire explains that he is about to lose much of what he has built within himself.
Podulke is quite fine in a roll that requires a palate of emotional withdrawal and a tricky display of physicality. He leaves just the right amount of uncertainty as to the true workings of Julian’s heart. Kingsley has the deceptively difficult job of playing human opposite a foil who is mostly aluminum. With little discernable humor and a weary disposition, she seems more one-note than one would expect from a brilliant neuroscientist who is getting on in years. And she is not helped by the fact that the playwright loads Claire down with enough emotional baggage to fill an airport lost-and-found. By the time the weight of it all falls upon her, I was wishing for Julian’s ability to enter sleep mode.
Kudos to set designer Jesse Dreikosen for creating the desk from which Julian sprouts, one body part at a time. While the method is obvious enough, the delivery is seamless and quite effective. In what is perhaps a knowing wink to this special effect, Julian is fascinated by a Kleenex box on the desk and the way the tissues so effortlessly pull out from their holder.
To the company’s credit, there is only a single scene that is entirely ridiculous. This involves a gigantic projection of Julian’s head beamed onto that white curtain, looking like some futuristic space child, while offstage his robotic self finds its special purpose and dramatic music, the kind one might hear in a 1950’s soap opera, sweeps in. And while nothing else approaches that level of camp, there are a couple odd choices that disrupt the action. There is a video camera and monitor as part of the office set and the camera turns on at unexplained times to provide unnecessary close-ups of Julian. And late in the play, Julian steps down off the stage then wanders over to lean on the proscenium and stare out at the audience as he delivers his lines. Presumably, the director was trying to tell us something about the nature of real and imagined worlds, but it was one step too many for this character’s artificial feet.
Uncanny Valley – by Thomas Gibbons, Directed by Tom Dugdale.
WITH: Alex Podulke (Julian) and Barbara Kingsley (Claire).
Scenic design by Jesse Dreikosen; Costume design by Therese Bruck; Lighting by John Ambrosone; Sound by Elisheba Ittoop; Stage Manager, Lori M. Doyle; at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200, Through Sunday, October 26th,www.59e59.org, Running time: 90 minutes.