Review: Robots we hate in 'Connecting Circuits'

January 15, 2013 - 11:32 PM
Theater Review-Connecting Circuits

In this undated publicity photo released by Springer Associates PR, from left, Brian Tom O’Connor, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jarel Davidow and Meredith Howard perform in a scene from ‘The Truth Quotient," performing in repertory with "R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots)" presented off-Broadway by Resonance Ensemble as "Creating Connections" at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Springer Associates PR, Jon Kandel)

NEW YORK (AP) — Keep a wary eye on that little robot vacuum humming away underneath your couch; it just might be plotting against you with others of its kind.

In "Connecting Circuits," Resonance Ensemble celebrates their 10th anniversary season by presenting two shows in repertory about humans versus robots: Karel Capek's 1920 classic, "R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots)" directed by Valetina Fratti, and Richard Manley's new play, "The Truth Quotient," directed by Eric Parness.

The pair opened Sunday night off-Broadway at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, with Manley's work coming off as much more thought-provoking. Capek's play, originally written in Czech and undoubtedly novel and intriguing to audiences in the first few decades of its life, was meant as a satirical protest against the Western industrialization of human workers. When "R.U.R." was first produced in New York in 1922, it brought the word "robot" into popular use in America.

Whether it's the fault of Fratti's direction or this adaptation by Lee Eric Shackleford, "R.U.R." feels too long and slow. And definitely not satirical. Everything that's going to happen is telegraphed and predictable; any tension or original philosophy by the accomplished author seems to have disappeared.

Two of the most effective actors are Chris Ceraso as the last human alive, and Christine Bullen as innocently optimistic Helena, who worries about the robots' feelings. But despite the hardworking, 15-member cast doing their best to humanize (or roboticize) their respective characters, this production just feels tedious. By the time the robot workers, reprogrammed as soldiers, are rumored to be killing all humans, you might feel like cheering them on to do it faster.

On the other hand, Manley's play, "The Truth Quotient," is well-paced by Parness. Manley raises interesting questions about the nature of faith, trust and love, along with the pros and cons of self-delusion. What is "reality" and why must it be strenuously adhered to, if a happier alternative can be created? Manley's twist on solving modern-day loneliness is amusing, until it gets creepy.

Jarel Davidow, (both imperious and childlike) plays nebbishy, wealthy financier, David, who purchases a sexy, young, lifelike robot-girlfriend named Caprice, (a perky Meredith Howard), personally programmed to please and adore him. Then he procures physical replicas of his now-deceased parents, (nicely performed by Brian Tom O'Connor and Angelina Fiordellisi), but has their personalities programmed to create the intellectual, caring folks he wishes he'd had.

When long-estranged older brother Donald reappears to make amends, (Maxwell Zener, nicely incredulous), his distaste for the artificiality of David's world butts up against smooth-talking, manipulative Rachel (Shaun Bennet Wilson). She's David's persistent "customer service" contact at Nureal, the company that created and programs his artificial family.

Wilson gives a strong, nuanced performance, as omnipresent puppet-master Rachel pops up on David's large-screen TV whenever she feels like it. She increasingly controls David, confident that he'd rather be "safe and secure than free and frightened."

Is Rachel correct in thinking that David would choose the company of adoring robots over his own brother? And is she just a bit too scornful of humans when confronting Donald? Manley leaves us with a big concept to mull over: Just how much people might be willing to trade off or ignore, to gain happiness.

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Online:

http://www.resonanceensemble.org