Show someone a manufacturing robot – the kind used to build cars – and he’ll generally have no emotional response, positive or negative. A vaguely humanoid robot, like Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, will earn a mild positive response; C-3PO will do even better. But once you hit too close to human likeness – close, but not quite right – responses will turn suddenly, dramatically negative. That is, until you find a robot indistinguishable from a human, like any of the Terminators (terrifying propensity to kill aside).
That dip, called the “uncanny valley”, is a phenomenon that exists not just in robotics, but also computer gaming and animation – think Tom Hanks’ creepy deadface in The Polar Express. There are a handful of theories as to what causes it, but most seem to revolve around the idea that once something’s close enough to being human, we stop judging it by robot standards, where it excels, and start judging by human standards, where it falls short. But is the phenomenon limited to physicality? As a robot evolves along an ever-more emotionally human path, does it hit the same violent dip?
While Francesca Talenti’s new play The Uncanny Valley purports to explore this in some fashion, it fails.
Alphonse Nicholson plays Edwin, a man lured into a half-year experiment by an off-screen mad professor attempting to create a robot with a full set of human emotions, experiences, and memories. Edwin agrees to spend 24 weeks communicating with, and mentally integrating with, Dummy, a wheelchair-bound humanoid robot (played by Engineered Arts Ltd.’s “RoboThespian,” an actual robot designed for this purpose). His sessions involve an hour of conversation with Dummy followed by a bizarre ritual in which, after inhaling some sort of dream-inducing chemical, Edwin connects nodes to his scalp and transmits his mental images to Dummy.
The sessions help Dummy become a gradually more accurate and indistinguishable version of Edwin, taking on his face, his voice, and his thoughts. As Dummy grows, so does his desire to experience all that is human, and here, at this gateway into predictability, is where The Uncanny Valley falls apart.
It’s one thing to explore familiar themes, but clichés kill art, and this play is full of them. Egregiously, it stars a stiff and naive robot who, after progressive doses of the human spirit, professes his desire to love and to feel the wind and sun on his skin. That by itself is unforgivable.
Meanwhile, the many scenes where Edwin imprints onto Dummy, each involving a tedious minute of projected abstract images over dreamlike music, look as if they were plucked from any film’s campy dream sequence. And there’s even a moment where Dummy has an intense physical reaction to two conflicting bits of information – like a cartoon robot whose head blows up after encountering a logical paradox.
It’s also not clear why Talenti involved Greek mythology in her play. The laboratory in which Edwin and Dummy work is maintained by a custodian who is secretly Atropos, one of the Three Fates. Played by Katja Hill, Atropos mostly serves to set the scene and interact with Edwin and Dummy when their dialogue requires a third. But it’s uncertain why the story needs Atropos specifically, if that’s all she’s doing.
She tries to explain in the beginning: technological advances have made her sisters Clotho and Lachesis obsolete. Atropos, whose role as a Fate is to see to death, still has a job as long as humans don’t synthesize immortality – which turns out to be Dummy’s purpose.
That’s not enough to justify her being there. Atropos may be tangentially related to the plot, but not strongly enough to make her necessary – particularly when she has no clear role. Greek mythology is part of the tradition of theatre, but it’s not supposed to be purposeless. The vague way her character is handled leads to suspicions that Atropos’s inclusion is just an attempt to artificially lend some literary depth to the story.
The dialogue itself is too often stilted, confusing, or unnatural – even the humans’ – to be mere fluke. It’s not helped by the often clumsy exposition – “It’s amazing what twelve weeks can do!” Edwin says, when he wants the audience to know the time elapse since the last scene – which is obvious when it should be subtle, yet vague when it needs to be clear. And the ending, finally, comes rushed and abrupt, with Dummy making a sudden, unexpected reversal on the third-to-last page of script.
Interestingly, the one red flag going into this show proved to be done well after all. One might expect a trademarked RoboThespian, around which parts of the script clearly had to be written, to be gimmicky beyond repair, but the machinery that manifested Dummy was almost perfect for this story.
That’s small consolation, though, for a play that misses the mark on so much else.