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Review: The 34-year-old man who happens to be a robot: Welcome to ‘Uncanny Valley’

Susan Denaker and Jacob Sidney star in "Uncanny Valley," directed by caryn desai at the International City Theatre in Long Beach.
Susan Denaker and Jacob Sidney star in “Uncanny Valley,” directed by caryn desai at the International City Theatre in Long Beach.
(Steven Georges)

No less a genius than Stephen Hawking has warned that artificial intelligence will spell the end of humankind.

That existential threat is treated — but only lightly — in Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley,” now at International City Theatre in Long Beach. Gibbons has smaller fish to fry in his complex, intriguing and frequently funny play about the interactions between a “non-biological human” (a sentient robot) and the scientist who created him.

The action is set about 30 years in the future when enormous strides in the field of AI have come to fruition with the creation of Julian (Jacob Sidney), the brainchild of brilliant neuroscientist Claire (Susan Denaker), a pioneer in the field. She’s the mentor who schools Julian in the niceties of human behavior.

The notion of “Uncanny Valley” refers to the sense of dread individuals feel when confronted by increasingly lifelike robots. And they don’t come much more lifelike than Julian. First seen only as a head and shoulders, Julian is carefully cobbled into a fully formed 34-year-old man, complete with all the necessary extremities.

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In director caryn desai’s astute staging, the relationship between Claire and Julian unfolds as a sort of technological romance, platonic but richly layered. Denaker is rewarding as Claire; Sidney turns in a tour de force, carefully charting every detail of Julian’s progression from the robotic to the convincingly human.

When Claire informs Julian that he has been designed as a “vessel” to ensure the immortality of a dying millionaire, it’s a shocker that takes the drama in a wildly different direction.

Gibbons sometimes oversteps his convoluted construct, leaving us scratching our heads about motive and meaning, while his closing metaphor ends the play on an arcane note when a more heartfelt coda would be welcome. Still, it’s fun to ponder the complications of Gibbons’ sometimes ungraspable but very entertaining play, which presents disturbing ethical dilemmas that may not be as futuristic as we would wish.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Uncanny Valley’

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday

Tickets: $47-$49

Information: (562) 436-4610. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

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Running time: 2 hours

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