Arts » Stage

Potential Hazards

These robots need reprogramming.

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Hollywood's increasing interest in computer technology doesn't threaten the careers of pen-to-paper cartoon artists alone. Flesh-and-blood thespians also face the possibility of being displaced by pixelation. Virtual characters -- including a computer-generated Tom Hanks -- have top billing in the upcoming film The Polar Express. But as Entertainment Weekly noted in its July 23 issue, their "blank eyes, waxy skin and slo-mo jellyfish moves" come off as more creepy than cute.

In the TBA Players' production Comic Potential at Just Off Broadway, consistently clever playwright Alan Ayckbourn toys with the brave new future of computerized acting. The play presents a British soap opera of the future that is replacing its human actors with "actoids" -- robotic actors with talent programmed into their hard drives. Too bad more talent hasn't been hard-wired into the cast and director.

The first act introduces the people behind the TV show, including an egomaniacal director (played with one-note bellowing by Richard Buswell) and, for no reason that's ever followed up, a lesbian couple (Janell Ratzlaff and Diane Bulan) who tiptoe around the boss's tantrums. They sit at computer stations and manipulate the soap's cast, headed up by the actoid known as JC333 (or, phonetically, Jacie Triplethree). Jennifer Downey does a fair job inhabiting the role of the chameleonic actoid, but she's largely adrift in waters way over her head. In one recent performance, she seemed to have received a director's note during intermission to be more robotic, resulting in a second-act performance that was differently pitched than her work in the first.

The soap's crew is visited early on by Carla (Jeanne Averill, seemingly channeling Absolutely Fabulous' Jennifer Saunders), a flamboyant network executive, and Adam, the young man on whom she has designs (played by Kevin Grooms in inadvisable homage to Rock Hudson at his stiffest in the worst Doris Day ever made). Adam falls in love with Jacie, but it's a romance doomed for a meltdown, which, in Jacie's case, is a real possibility -- actoids are literally disassembled once past their prime.

Robert Paisley directs this withering show with all the zip of a junky car on three flat tires. The pacing is dull and witless throughout; several scene changes, for instance, result in a fully lighted stage where the only sign of the actors is their persistent and unprofessional backstage chatter. When the cast is united onstage for what Ayckbourn intends as farce, it often makes you long for its absence. The actors blankly stand around without any connection to the action. When they do have dialogue, they seem to be at war with their fleeting British accents.

Comic Potential's deadliest sin, though, comes during the first act, when Adam and the director get into a debate about what makes comedy funny. They discuss such trademark pieces of the equation as the pie in the face and the double take, both of which are subsequently played amateurishly. It's a dangerous slope to produce a comedy about comedy that isn't marginally amusing.

Minor grace notes do pop up from three actors with small roles. In the second half, Tanya Barber plays a blowsy prostitute with a bristling chip on her shoulder -- and the only unwavering accent of the evening. Ryan Butts has a couple nice turns among his multiple roles; his hotel desk clerk's bitchy demeanor has more pizzazz than any of the more prominent characters. And Charles Christesson's brief scene as a waiter with a bizarre, semi-French accent gets one of the show's only well-earned laughs. Postscript: The Coterie Theatre's stellar production of Seussical closes this week after consistent sellouts. In fact, the only production in the theater's 25 year history that Seussical hasn't financially surpassed is its 2002 Christmas show, and that ran two weeks longer. Seussical's success asserts that summer children's theater is not necessarily dependent on the school field trip racket.

The show has also brought unprecedented national attention to the Coterie. In attendance last week was Florie Seery, an associate producer with Disney Theatrical, and Tim McDonald from Music Theatre International in New York. The guest list over the play's run also included Steven Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and Jeff Miller, production manager of Seattle Children's Theatre, where Coterie artistic director Jeff Church will direct the show next summer.

"And many theater people this Sunday through Tuesday involved in the Theatre Communications Group's management conference at the Fairmont," Church says of the purely coincidental pack of theater representatives in town from all over the country.

McDonald, head of MTI's artistic division, served the show as Church's liaison to its composers, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. "I was here to see if what was a long show could be adapted into a 70-minute piece for other uses," he says. "The proof is in the pudding, and the answer is, overwhelmingly, yes. I thought it was great."

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