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Copping an Actoid: Amy Cornelison plays a robot actor who offers unlimited prospects to Noel Wood in 'Comic Potential.'

All Droid Up

California Theatre Center looks for 'Comic Potential' in Alan Ayckbourn's farce

By Marianne Messina

IS THERE a flaw in a comedy where you find yourself so rooting for the villainess that the comic pie in the eye leaves a bad taste in your mouth? At a recent California Theatre Center production of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, from the moment ruthless studio manager Carla Pepperbloom (wickedly played by Holly Cornelison) complains, "I hate downsizing meetings--all those tears and recriminations," she rules.

I suppose that by 1998, after writing 50-odd plays, Ayckbourn had earned the right to self-reflect and self-congratulate. In Comic Potential, his alter ego, Chandler Tate, is an artistic genius who has outlived his heyday and finds himself at a large, soulless conglomerate, directing robotic actors ("actoids") in formula soap operas. Will Huddleston plays Tate's cynical humor with convincing world-weariness. When a young admirer of Tate's, Adam Trainsmith (Noel Wood), discovers that one of the actoids is developing a comedic sense all its/her own, suddenly both men come alive with the prospect of producing a comedy around said Jacie (Adam misunderstood the actoid's serial number--starting with JC, for "Junior Character"--to be her name).

At first, as he sets about mentoring Adam, Tate's explanation of comedic devices (for example, overact, underact, but never take the middle ground--the territory of drama) is intriguing enough to bypass a self-reflexive plot that proceeds to throw those comedic devices in your face. But when wistful glances and pregnant pauses punctuate a discussion of how painful "love" would be for Jacie, given her nascent consciousness (read "pure innocence"), the comedy starts to wither. Amy Cornelison (as Jacie) does a great dance sequence and glides smoothly through more characters and accents than a Robin Williams monologue, but palming this head-twitching metamorph off as a sympathetic Galatea is just as annoying as Carla Pepperbloom says it is.

Visually, the scenes of robotic actors getting synchronously switched on and off are hilarious. In fact, well-executed gags and lines keep the belly laughs rolling through the whole first half of the play. But then--perhaps the company shouldn't have taken Ayckbourn as seriously as he takes himself, that is, unless you want to believe that Adam's love for a woman who conveniently has no needs of her own is righteous, and if Adam doesn't keep reminding you of those men on the Real Sex show about blow-up dolls.

Yes, Carla is the evil, number-crunching philistine (you know a woman is evil when she goes after a younger man), but Holly Cornelison plays her with such charisma that even when she was downstage out of the action, such as when the humans are observing the robotic actors perform part of Tate's proposed comedy, I found myself watching for her every facial "give-me-a-break" expression. And despite serious political leanings for art over corporate entertainment, I secretly wished for Carla to get the boy and melt down that cloying robot.


Comic Potential plays June 14, 26-27 and July 10, 19 and 23 at 8pm and July 27 at 2 and 7pm at the Sunnyvale Community Center Theatre, 550 E. Remington Dr., Sunnyvale. Tickets are $18-$25. The show plays in repertory with The Miser, Lost in Hollywood and Art through July 27 at the theater. Call 408.720.0873 for details; check www.ctcinc.org for more info.


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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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