Playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn is well known in England, but less so here in the states. A prolific playwright with over seventy plays to his name, his work includes dramas, comedies, and many interesting experimental works. One such play, his 1998 sci-fi comedy Comic Potential just opened in McLean, the newest offering from the venerable McClean Community Players. Production notes mention that MCP is the first community theatre in the United States to produce this work. Kudos to them for their bold and interesting choice. One wishes more community theatres would seek out lesser-known gems like this.
Set in an unspecified London future, Comic Potential is the story of Adam (Scott Duvall), an aspiring young writer whose rich uncle owns a local TV network. They’re currently producing a tacky soap opera cast not with human actors but rather robots called “act-oids.” One act-oid in particular, Jacie (Caity Brown) begins to show talent for comedy and curiosity about human life. Adam decides to cast her in his new TV project, and the two eventually explore a romance. But is Jacie really capable of love?
Of course, Comic Potential isn’t the first science fiction story to use a robot character to explore what it means to be human. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and the recent Alien semi-sequel Prometheus all explored this theme. (And don’t forget Data from Star Trek – The Next Generation and the doctor on Voyager.)
Ayckbourn creates an interesting speculative future that combines creative ideas about technology with familiar human failings like greed and prejudice. His world is filled with interesting details and complex characters.
The script does run a little long, and suffers from some issues of misplaced emphasis. The heart of the play is the Adam/Jacie relationship, but Ayckbourn waits far too long to begin exploring it. Instead, the first act is filled up with less interesting details and characters. Fortunately, once Adam and Jacie connect, the audience is fully engaged. Along with interesting ideas and relationships, there are moments of real humor.
As our robot hero, Caity Brown wonderfully captures the range of new and complex emotions experienced by Jacie as she begins to engage more fully with the world around her. Scott Duvall brings a welcomed quality of boyish enthusiasm (and worldly naïveté) to Adam Frank Gorrell conveys enormous humor in his role as the washed-up soap director.
Among the supporting players, Stephen T. Wheeler shines in a variety of featured roles, including a robot farmer, hotel clerk, put upon husband and criminal. Anne Hilleary made the most of her series of characters, which included a suffering mother and an impatient sales clerk. Mike Scott is memorable in his single scene as a media mogul.
Director Robert Sams creates a finely detailed sci-fi world. All the elements worked well together. He managed to keep the pace brisk during the comic chaos of the second act. One wishes the scene changes could have been faster, but presumably future performances will address this.
Costumes by Juliana Cofrancesco successfully suggested futuristic fashions, and the use of red as an accent color was clever. The set by Bob and Diane Sams was basic but highly effective.
McLean Community Players’ Comic Potential has humor, a lot of heart, and fine performances. Check it out.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Comic Potential plays through October 22, 2016, at McLean Community Players performing at the Alden Theatre at the McLean Community Center – 1234 Ingleside Avenue, in McLean VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 790-9223, or purchase them online.