WILLIAMSTOWN — In an interview earlier this month in a New York Capital District newspaper, playwright Michael West described his new play, "The Chinese Room," as a sci-fi comedy thriller; "a love story with action and thriller aspects;" " 'Blade Runner' as written by Noel Coward."
That's an awful lot of weight to carry. No wonder the play — which is having its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage — is such a muddle.
The insufferably long-seeming "The Chinese Room" (it runs only 2 hours and 17 minutes with an intermission) is set in the living room of the Connecticut home of a scientist named Frank (played Brian F. O'Byrne with unrelenting urgency and desperation), whose wife, Lilly (a finely tuned Laila Robbins) is showing early signs of dementia.
The couple share their home with a boy named Zack (Elliott Trainor) and a humandroid named Susannah (smartly played by Sue Jean Kim) who's been programmed with a system Frank has created in order to save his wife's memory. But Frank is being forced out of the company he has created, the result of a business deal with a Chinese company. The generation of artificial intelligence Frank and his company have created is to be abandoned in favor of something more sophisticated and advanced.
As "The Chinese Room" begins, Frank is desperately trying to retrieve vital information and processes he needs from the data bank before he is locked out. Blocking him is a humandroid named Daniel (Carson Elrod in a brilliantly conceived and executed, knock-your-socks-off performance) whose loyalty is to whomever is calling the shots.
The play draws its title from the Chinese Room Argument, published in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle who, based on a thought-experiment he conducted, refuted the notion that the human mind is a complex computerlike information processing system. Instead, mind functions, he maintains, are biological processes that computer systems can only simulate. Computers, he argues, are not capable of real understanding, only the appearance of understanding.
So, what then, are the implications for artificial intelligence? It's a question at the core of "The Chinese Room."
There is a heart, of sorts, beating under this play and it beats around the nature of time and memory and, yes, love and the extent to which one man will go out of love, deep love, for a life-partner who is fading away. But, with the exceptions of two genuinely moving speeches by Frank, West is more concerned with how many surprising twists, turns and reversals he can engineer.
As directed by James MacDonald, "The Chinese Room" is neither romantic nor particularly thrilling. It is funny only intermittently and then in a broad, slapstick manner. The production's lasting memories are connected to its physicality, especially the humanoids — Kim's Susannah and especially Elrod, who virtually stops the show with an Olympics-size series of tumbles and falls over tables, chairs and a sofa. His feat is dexterous, nimble and stunning. It's also emblematic of a play that, when it isn't going limp — as the humandroids will do from time to time — trips all over itself.
What: "Th e Chinese Room" by Michael West. Directed by James MacDonald
With: Brian F. O'Byrne, Laila Robbins, Carson Elrod, Sue Jean Kim, Elliot Trainor
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: Nikos Stage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown
When: Now through Saturday. Evenings — Tonight at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 3:30
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes (including one intermission)
How: 413-597-3400; wtfestival.org; directly at '62 Center box office