Build: Theater Review

Build Theater Still - H 2012
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Build Theater Still - H 2012

Videogame designers clash over ethics and issues of personal and social stability in a moderately bright but facile comedy of a future where manners cease to matter.

A brilliant yet troubled videogame designer conjures an artificial intelligence "robot" of his deceased wife.

No doubt exists of the revolutionary transformations wrought in our society, psychology, culture and economy due to technological innovation. Relationships with others, to the world and to one’s own self are changing rapidly. The nature of perception itself is altering, as a higher reality is being assigned to mediated contacts over the materiality of places, objects and other people that used to be commonly accepted as the “real” world. Programming has begun to predetermine the nature of interaction, perhaps metaphorically no more decisively than in the realm of gaming.

Michael Golamco’s Build may be a conventionally dramatized piece, engineered to well-established specifications, yet it does convey a plausible and accessible understanding of the world of writing computer code and how the allure of and addiction to fantasy realms tends to supplant the experience of corporeal existence.

Neurotic recluse Kip (Thomas Sadowski, seen recently on HBO's Newsroom) won’t change out of his bathrobe nor leave the confines of the bungalow bequeathed him by his grandmother, even though he has ample wealth from selling out his game-design startup to corporate management. His old friend and former partner in entrepreneurship, Will (Peter Katona), has been dispatched to shepherd Kip through the final phases of debuggery for the sequel to their hit game, delivery of which is imminent and crucial to the company’s prosperity and survival.

Kip’s paranoia and genius are inseparable. He is persistently distracted by new curlicues of clever hidden features, disdain for documenting details for others he can otherwise retain in his head and above all by ambitions to innovate paradigm-shifting flights of artistic revelation.

The most magical of these is the creation of an artificial intelligence “robot” (Laura Heisler) who incarnates Kip’s deceased wife in every idealized particular, capable of autonomous learning and expression, a programming miracle of appropriately disturbing proportions. It quickly becomes apparent that Kip’s only functioning relationships are his estranged one with Will and his fantastical one with “AI,” and that both have in common an obsession with control through manipulation.

Kip’s idealism edges ambiguously into anarchy, a search to make the freedom to create universal and democratic that nevertheless has darker implications of denying to others the same control he cannot himself relinquish. And is not the ultimate attraction of gaming a very literal control of “events” through the manipulation of play?

These intriguing ideas, developed with fussy craft, make for a good, stimulating show. Nevertheless, the piece is astoundingly old-fashioned for one so otherwise attuned to the direction of the future. The development of the relationships tends to the schematic, and rarely do the two men significantly transcend an Odd Couple archetype, no matter how much conviction the good actors muster.

Golamco’s last play seen here, the also conventional but richly affecting Year Zero, displayed a more acute urgency than this enjoyable gloss on important issues, which ultimately is more an exercise — a game, if you will — than a compelling and necessary grappling with fundamental dilemmas of our time.

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles (runs through Nov. 18)

Cast: Thomas Sadoski, Peter Katona, Laura Heisler

Director: Will Frears

Playwright: Michael Golamco

Set Designer: Sibyl Wickersheimer

Costume Designer: E. B. Brooks

Lighting Designer: Daniel Ionazzi

Sound Designer: Vincent Olivieri