This Sceptered Aisle

London calling: Matthew Cottle and Janie Dee in Comic Potential.Photo: John Haynes

I caught Alan Ayckbourn’s opus 53 on a quick visit to London. It is called Comic Potential, and it’s a masterpiece. Ayckbourn has been variously patronized as a mere farceur, a skillful polygrapher, or England’s answer to Neil Simon. But he is more than that. His best plays hinge on a gimmick of genius that, transcending reality, enables us to see what’s real more clearly.

Comic Potential takes place in the future, when TV programs are performed by actoids, a species of android suitable for cheesy shows for benighted audiences. They can learn lines and act out parts, and have unlimited memories and superhuman strength but no thoughts or feelings of their own. They can also be melted down and reconfigured in another mold. The play opens on a hospital scene: A doctor is telling a young man his foot will have to be amputated. The doctor is impassive, the patient distraught, his mother teary, the nurse quietly clutching her clipboard. All four are actoids.

Above them sit their puppeteers: Chandler (Chance) Tate, a famous American film director now a drunkard reduced to directing this tripe; Trudi Floote, a technician; and Prim Spring, a programmer – the two women lesbian lovers. Chandler is annoyed that the mother, a beloved character, weeps too sparingly; Prim, at her console, promptly gives her more tears. The doctor is slightly defective: He’ll “remove the temporary pluster cust and umputate just above the unkle.” The nurse lets out an unprogrammed laugh. To the technician, this is “random AU subrogation”; the console signal is clear. Blame “it” – the doctor; all actoids are “its.”

Already we have a heightened satire on television, its purveyors and consumers. Apart from the alcoholic director, only one “it” evinces an independent mind: the nurse called Jacie Triplethree. The villain here is Carla Pepperbloom, the production company’s regional director, a younger-man-eating older woman and scourge of her subordinates, who arrives with Adam Trainsmith, a likable young writer she wants to seduce. The less-affluent nephew of the American billionaire Lester Trainsmith, owner of this studio and almost everything else, Adam idolizes the early films of Chandler and is thrilled to meet him. In due time, the mute Lester also shows up in his wheelchair, wired to his effeminate factotum, Marmion, who comically speaks for him.

Adam is taken with Jacie and decides to write a teleplay for her. Amid spouting more or less relevant (and funny) bits from her past repertoire, she begins to utter things wholly her own. Jacie is becoming a real woman, and to escape Carla’s jealous rage and getting melted down, she and Adam run off together and find themselves in love. They have uproarious adventures in a luxury hotel, a designer dress boutique, a fancy restaurant, and, forced to hide out from the pursuing Carla and the press, in a den of iniquity. It all comes to a highly mirthful and meaningful conclusion.

A version, then, of the Pygmalion story, as an android becomes humanized by love. But also a hilarious social satire, a disquisition on the nature of comedy, and a wistful commentary on the power and precariousness of love. Underlying it all is the threat of being melted down – which, at one despairing point, Jacie herself desires – and the androids’ lack of sexual organs and what this betokens for our lovers’ future. Comic Potential has both comic actuality and tragic potential. It also has one of the finest performances I have ever seen. As Jacie, Janie Dee, a striking brunette, transforms herself into an adorable, dumb-seeming blonde. But subtly, funnily, movingly, this “it” becomes a she, with supreme ability to be actoid, actress, and irreducibly woman successively and even overlappingly. To take your eyes off this performance for one moment constitutes an incalculable loss. Under the author’s inventive direction, the entire cast is splendid, with David Soul’s Chandler and Matthew Cottle’s Adam given special chances to shine. My only worry is whether in a production without Miss Dee the play can achieve its full tragicomic potential.

This Sceptered Aisle