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[whitespace] 'Comic Potential'
Photograph by Jeanine Brown

From Bad to Nurse: The future of TV turns out to be an all-android soap opera starring (from left) Jennifer Erdmann, ej Ndeto, Jacob Gordillo and Jeff Vinall, according to 'Comic Potential.'

Oh, the Humanity

An android actress finds a human side within her 'Comic Potential'

By Heather Zimmerman

LOOKING AT TV'S fall lineups, one might think the future of entertainment that Alan Ayckbourn envisions in his play Comic Potential has already come to pass: a television industry consisting of robotic actors performing banal scenarios. Fortunately, this witty meditation on creativity and humanity demonstrates that, at least so far, the automated drones haven't bested the performing arts. City Lights Theater Company opens its season with Ayckbourn's insightful satirical fantasy.

In the near future, android actors ("actoids") and their human programmers have become the staple of TV, and none of the humans working in the medium care to fight the networks for even a smidgen of creative control, except for the once-great film director Chandler Tate (James G. Mantell), now spending his twilight years "directing" the all-android soap Hospital Hearts. Mantell really taps into the heart of this "old-timer," who despite his overt cynicism, still tries to incorporate some art into the automation.

The arrival of Adam (Bradford J. Shreve), the network owner's nephew and a would-be writer, spurs Chandler to greater rebellion after Adam discovers, let's say, a streak of humanity in one of the soap's actoids, Jacie (Jennifer Erdmann). Happily, the heartstring-tugging is in short supply, even as Ayckbourn explores those indefinable defining hallmarks of humanity: emotion and creativity, which he does chiefly through a romantic relationship between Adam and Jacie.

Unfortunately, the story loses some of its interest when it veers away from the ensemble comedy and delves into the budding romance between Adam and Jacie, although Shreve and Erdmann do offer winning performances. But the relationship, perhaps not coincidentally, seems trite, as if one conflicted romance is much like another, whether it's boy meets girl or boy meets 'bot--Ayckbourn may be suggesting it's the emotions that matter rather than any events or specifics. On the lighter side, what with network executives who think only of the bottom line, writers who are nearly extinct thanks to a set of prefab formulas programmed into actors who really are nothing more than pretty faces and some pricey body parts, Ayckbourn's bleak world of late-21st-century entertainment seems pretty familiar--and he skewers that familiarity for every laugh.

Accordingly, director Ross Nelson goes for the gusto with the comedy, making the most of a show that literally examines the science of pie-in-the-face gags. However, Nelson adeptly highlights the play's warm, subtle humor just as well as its broad pratfalls. Some of the best laughs come from mere moments: in particular, ej Ndeto has a hilarious scene as a dress-shop assistant who wields the word "eager" as the filthiest insult possible. Ndeto hurls barbs in the perfect Queen's English, but within the cast there are too many difficulties with dialects to ignore. Though the play is British, maybe setting it in America would have been less of an infraction than staging it with a number of actors who have considerable trouble managing the British dialect, to the extent that their struggles often overwhelm their lines.

Of course, according to Ayckbourn, comic potential--indeed, creative potential--lies within unpredictable imperfection. Being prone to flaws might pave the way for good stuff, artistically speaking. Maybe the secret to comedy isn't timing, as they say, but rather human nature; likewise, the key to understanding humanity is creativity and the gamut of emotions it can harness--or unleash.

Comic Potential plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm through Oct. 19 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$25. (408.295.4200)

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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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