Future Schlock

Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential (1999) is – I thought so when I saw it in London, again when I read it, again when I reviewed it here (February 7, 2000), and most recently when I reexperienced it at the Manhattan Theatre Club – one of the finest plays of all my theatergoing decades. It is a riotous farce, a tremulously exquisite love story, a superb satire on television and other human follies, a wise and serious drama full of playfully tossed-off profundities about sundry aspects of life and art, and an irresistible evening in the theater. If you are going to see only one play in your life, make it this one.

It is a play about the future, when television has sunk even lower than it has now, and actors are replaced by actoids – a sort of performing robot programmed to deliver cheap comedy and melodrama proficiently and economically for idiot consumption. We are watching a cheesy hospital serial being enacted by such actoids, one of whom, playing a nurse, interpolates unprogrammed laughter into her role, considerably annoying Chandler Tate, a once-famous film-comedy director, now a drunk reduced to helming this tripe. He spars with two amiable lesbians, Trudi the technician and Prim the programmer, in the control booth.

The surgeon actoid announces, “I’m going to remove the temporary pluster cust and umputate just above the unkle,” which is described by Trudi as “random AU subrogation,” a common robotic defect. But the nurse’s laughter is something else: the machine beginning to become human.

In comes the man-eating harridan and staff tyrant Carla Pepperbloom, the TV’s regional director, to supervise and undercut the proceedings. She promptly bullies everyone, and, noting the nurse’s inchoate independence, proposes to have her melted down, as is done with any defective or overused actoid. But with Carla comes Adam Trainsmith, unwealthy but talented young nephew of Lester Trainsmith, the American billionaire who controls global television and artificial intelligence, a youth she hopes to seduce. Adam wants to meet his idol, Chandler, and also learn how to break into TV comedy writing. Left briefly alone with the nurse, whose serial number is JCF31333, and whom he calls Jacie Triplethree, he begins talking to her and finds her capable of intelligent original responses.

At first interested only in writing a farce for Jacie – in her comic potential – Adam gradually falls in love with her. She, treated for the first time as a human being, blossoms into a fine and loving but confused one. Adam runs off with her, as everyone pursues the scandalous fugitive couple. With delightful humor, tinged with equally delightful seriousness, Adam teaches Jacie, and she, in turn, teaches him. It is a twist on the Pygmalion story, with Galatea giving back as much as she receives – or more.

What evolves is hilarious, touching, suspenseful, sagacious, and magisterially written. There is much that is smashingly funny, and as much that is incisive and profound. Take Prim’s warning to Adam about falling for an actoid: “Every time you speak to it, you trigger some response. It pulls it out of its memory bank and blurts it back at you. That’s all it’s doing.” To which Adam: “Maybe that’s all any of us do.” Or take the love-smitten and terrified Jacie telling Prim she wants to be melted down: “I’m unstable. I no longer control my feelings.” Whereat Prim: “If that was a criterion, we’d all be melted down.”

Or this, when Jacie, deeply perturbed, wonders: “Why me? … Am I so unique?” Chandler responds: “Forget unique. The road to stardom is strewn with the forgotten bodies of people who were told – usually by some stupid critic – and, worse still, believed they were unique.” (But he promptly contradicts his own precept.) At the risk of proving a stupid critic, I declare Comic Potential unique.

The American production, wonderfully designed by John Lee Beatty, Jane Greenwood, and Brian MacDevitt, is not quite so well directed by John Tillinger as it was in England by the author. Nor is the supporting cast – with the exception of Peter Michael Goetz’s terrific Robert Altman impersonation, as Chandler – up to the Brits. But all this is unimportant; what matters is that Janie Dee has come over to re-create her prize-winning performance as Jacie.

We have read so much about legendary actresses, past and present, missing whose creations of this or that great role leaves us permanently deprived. Such a spectacular achievement is Miss Dee’s. To miss Janie as Jacie – perfectly blended and, after who knows how many performances in Britain, still as fresh as a daisy – would be criminal; at the very least, an act of reckless spiritual self-deprivation. The fineness of detail, the range of emotion, the inventiveness and total rightness of the smallest gesture and the tiniest intonational shading – but also of the most broadly farcical (yet still impeccably judged) or the most heartrendingly poignant (yet not one jot overdone) effect leaves one pleasurably gasping. I am not sure that I have ever seen its equal, but I am certain I have never seen, nor ever will see, its superior.

I used to think that Betrayal was one of the vastly overrated Harold Pinter’s better plays, but its current Roundabout revival does nothing to confirm that opinion. It is the rather ordinary story of a seven-year love triangle involving Robert, a publisher, Emma, his wife, and his best friend and her clandestine lover, Jerry, a literary agent. Told straightforwardly, it would be trivial, indeed banal; but Pinter, cribbing an idea from Kaufman and Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, tells it backward, which creates dramatic irony and adds a little spice. After the novelty wears off, though, things become trivial again.

Even so, there is something very British about the speech and behavior of these characters, so that top-notch English actors can add the pleasures of visual and aural portraiture to the proceedings. When, however, your Emma is French (Juliette Binoche) and Robert and Jerry are Americans (John Slattery and Liev Schreiber), they tend not, much as they try, to get the sounds and sights right.

Schreiber, I’m afraid, comes across crude, and even looks obtuse; Slattery, besides being too American, is also too boyishly unadult. Miss Binoche, at least, is charming. David Leveaux’s direction, instead of glossing over, emphasizes the pseudopregnant pauses and miscarrying utterances.What is actually most interesting about Betrayal is that it recycles a recurrent theme in Pinter’s life and oeuvre: two male friends sharing the same woman. A classic symptom of homosexuality in heterosexual drag, it is of clinical interest but nevertheless adds nothing to the work’s artistic value.

The Rocky Horror Show is a paradigmatic cult object, as the massive audience participation that drowns out goodly chunks of the show attests. As cults invariably form around trash, I defer a full review of the not unskillful but distasteful revival, if possible indefinitely. Despite some good performances, Richard O’Brien’s sophomoric spoof remains just that.

Future Schlock