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Review: 'Build' really just a waiting game

Gather round, 21st century dramatists. Here's a little addendum to your playwriting handbook: Protagonists in bathrobes are not your friend.

This insight, hereby given the status of a dramatic verity, was born out of seeing "Build," Michael Golamco's new indie-spirited play at the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. Set in the not-too-distant future, the work revolves around a depressed video game designer holed up in his Palo Alto home tangled in his bedclothes.

The robe is the tipoff that this character, a walled-off engineering genius name Kip (Thomas Sadoski), isn't going to be capable of anything more strenuous than punching code into his computer, grabbing a slice from an old box of pizza or popping another pill and going back to bed.

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"Build" sounds active, but the play, which has a sleek Silicon Valley backdrop and a sexy cast under the glossy direction of Will Frears, is basically a waiting game. The audience is put in a position every bit as helpless as Kip's: When will this guy's mood finally lift?

But no need to pack a video game to get through the drama's fallow patches. Golamco introduces his own computer nerd diversion to enliven things — a simulated human being animated with artificial intelligence (played by Laura Heisler, with lovely pinging sound effects, the work of sound designer Vincent Olivieri, subtly underscoring her speech).

This fetchingly arty robot, we learn from Will (Peter Katona), Kip's flashy, Ferrari-driving engineering partner, is the spitting image of Kip's late wife, Allison. Will, who's in the software game more for the money than is his geeky buddy, is trying to help Kip complete his latest video game masterpiece. But Kip isn't making it easy. Not only has his mourning mutated into melancholia, but he now also has the crazy idea of giving away the game engine he's been developing with the same relentlessness that Captain Ahab pursued Moby-Dick.

Complicating matters further, he's living with the computerized ghost of his dead wife, outfitted with a database that makes her virtually impossible to beat in their favorite word game. An affecting Heisler does double duty, playing both the A.I. and the human being on which the device is modeled — a distinction that deliberately takes some time for us to sort out.

To fill us in on the tragic back story — and the reason for her husband's grief-induced malaise — Allison pops up from time to time to read old email messages she sent Kip, most of which express the loneliness of living with a "mad scientist."

In her farewell to her marriage, she explains her rationale: "Because in order to do what he does, he has to be so alone. And that's the sad thing about him, and the impossible thing, and the beautiful thing about him, and that's why I can't..."

Golamco's ideas of creativity might seem new given all the high-tech gadgetry and talk of computer codes, but the artist as isolated, wounded figure is an old notion, especially dear to Romantics, and hard to scrape clean of clichés. Equally familiar is the conflict between commercialism and obsessive artistry that is causing such tension in Kip and Will's friendship — the relationship that seems to matter most to the playwright, even though Will's role (fleshed out as much as possible by Katona) is underwritten.

Probably the most interesting thing about "Build" is the way the emotional dynamics of Kip's marriage are duplicated in his interaction with the A.I. Can a machine feel neglected? Evidently, yes. The saddest line in the play, feelingly rendered by Heisler, is a question posed by the A.I. "Did you even know that your wife liked green tea?"

Sadoski, who can always be counted on for textured individuality, humanizes Kip, making him a prisoner of his own fixated brilliance. If only the character had more to do than metabolize his guilt while removing the networking bugs in his video game design. By the time Kip's bathrobe is discarded for a set of clothes, the audience is ready for bed.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Build'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 18.

Tickets: $69 to $74

Contact: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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