First produced in 1999, Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, about a man who falls in love with a beautiful android, trips lightly over what has become familiar territory. The possibility that machines might develop human characteristics, like laughing or falling in love, is a story that's been done to death. Still, Ayckbourn's version has its own quirky charm, and that's because it's set in the crass and fabulous world of actors, a landscape that Ayckbourn (who's written 68 plays to date) knows a lot about.
Now running at Main Street Theater, the satire imagines our world a few decades into the future. Fax machines are a thing of the past, and grass has been re-engineered so that nobody needs a lawn mower. What does remain of our culture are those stalwarts of daytime television, melodramatic soap operas -- or "low IQ TV," as one character puts it. The space-aged shift here is that the weepy cast is filled with "actoids," androids who cry buckets whenever the programmer signals them to.
Hospital Hearts is in the middle of production. Directed by washed-up film director Chandler Tate (Paul Mathews), the lousy show's ratings are tanking. Part of the problem is the actoids. During one headache of an afternoon, they keep malfunctioning. The doctor character replaces his A's with U's and ends up saying things like, "I'll have to umputate the unkle." And then there's the pesky nurse character who keeps laughing at inappropriate moments. Programmer Prim Spring (Shannon Emerick) knows the doctor needs some adjustments. But nothing can explain that nurse; there's no technical reason for her malfunction.
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard
Through December 12; 713-524-6706; $20-$30
Enter Adam Trainsmith (Andrew Ruthven), the nephew of the wealthy and powerful Lester Trainsmith (Darwin Miller). Young Adam wants to write scripts, and he hopes he'll be able to learn something about writing from Chandler Tate, who apparently enjoyed a splendid reputation in the old days of his film career.
Everything begins to go completely bonky when newcomer Adam is inadvertently left alone with the nurse actoid. Nobody's told Adam that one isn't supposed to speak to actoids, that one should avoid "actoid empathy" at all costs. So he doesn't know he's not supposed to hit it off with a machine, or that actoids aren't supposed to act on their own, without being programmed.
He learns her name, Jacie Triplethree. He tells her all about old comedies made by real actors like Buster Keaton, and then Jacie begins to "learn" some good old-fashioned comedic acting, like the double take and how to throw a cream pie.
The most interesting moments of this show happen when Ayckbourn slides in his own ideas about what makes a good comedic actor. Adam eventually convinces director Tate that Jacie has real comic potential. And we get treated to one of the best scenes in the show when Tate teaches Jacie three versions of someone acting out pain. We learn that the difference between comedy and tragedy is that the comedic actor shows us that we don't have to worry about the character. These acting-instruction scenes get to the heart of what Ayckbourn really knows: what makes comedy funny.
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There are also some wonderfully inventive moments that keep this script fresh. When the frail and wealthy Trainsmith comes to check on his nephew and the show, he's wheeled around by an assistant, Marmion Cedilla (played by a hysterically fey Robert de los Reyes). Marmion is more than just a helper -- he's actually Trainsmith's voice. When Trainsmith wants to say something, Marmion hooks up a machine to Trainsmith that allows the old man to transmit his ideas through his assistant. The hilarious scene in which Marmion switches back and forth between his own girlish voice and Trainsmith's gruff commands is reason enough to see this show.
There's also a wicked scene in which Adam must empty out Jacie's "trapdoor" after she's had too much to drink. Stuck in a restaurant, they try to be discreet and end up exciting everyone around them.
Under Mark Adams's direction, the Main Street cast is capable, if not always as nuanced as they might be. As Jacie, Julie Simpson is charming. The character ends up woefully confused as she tries to sort out all the feelings she hasn't been programmed for. Mathews's Tate stomps around as the world-weary curmudgeon. And as Adam, Ruthven is a mild-faced everyman whose passions could use a little more fire. The real standout in this cast is de los Reyes, who plays several small characters, each utterly original.
Ayckbourn's script runs out of steam before we get to the end. He never does answer what happens to a poor machine that falls in love. As Jacie points out to Adam, she will look 19 forever, while he will grow old and die. But even with its glitches, the story offers many amusing observations about the world of comedy -- which is why it's so damned funny.