Plano — Greeting the audience arriving for Black Flag Theatre Company’s production of Thomas Gibbons’ Uncanny Valley are enlarged magazine covers announcing various breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, or AI. The journal Science, from January 2056, celebrates NEOS’s historic step toward AI in an article titled “Breaking Through to Consciousness.” A December 2031 issue of Wired declares that due to the release of NEOS’s new personal assistant, “The Future Is Now.” A future cover of the journal Discovery asks, “Are You Ready to Live Forever?”
These posters set up the play’s context while also disorienting the viewer. The journal covers are believable; the headlines, convincing. But the publication dates jar you away from the present and usher you into the futuristic world of the play, where Claire, a researcher into consciousness at the fictitious company NEOS, is developing the company’s latest generation of AI named Julian.
Neos is Greek for new, young, or fresh. It can also mean unexpected or strange. It is the word used in Jesus’ parable about new wineskins: “no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins” (Luke 5:37).
This Biblical allusion is useful for at least two important scenes. In the first, Claire nostalgically tells Julian a story about her daughter Becky, who at the age of five was caught pouring milk between a tall, narrow cup and a short, wide one. After carefully pouring the milk back and forth several times, Becky exclaims, “It’s the same!” To which Julian mechanically responds, “The conservation of identity.” The child’s experiential knowledge and aha moment are reduced to a theory within acceptable parameters according to programmed algorithms. The second scene is when Julian and the audience learn the real answer to his repeated question, “Why are my eyes brown?” But I won’t spoil that plot.
Sue Birch, of the recently closed Theatre Britain, persuasively portrays the 70-year-old neuroscientist Claire as she attempts to make a final contribution to AI. Her British accent adds gravitas to the clinical language and technical jargon of the script. You can hear the hesitancy in Claire’s voice when she finally begins to struggle with the moral issues that plague her life’s work. Birch skillfully moves between Claire’s various registers, from careful deliberation about scientific theories to poignant reminiscing about her estranged daughter.
Michael Salimitari is equally well cast as the AI humanoid Julian, whose coldness at the beginning of the play is worlds apart from his entitled smarminess at the end. There were a couple of times when he seemed to stumble over his lines, but as someone who regularly fights with Apple’s Siri and Toyota’s Jill, I thought Julian’s (or Salimitari’s) minor flubs made Julian all the more human.
Gibbons is playwright-in-residence at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre. He is the recipient of several playwriting fellowships and awards, and Uncanny Valley premiered in 2014 as part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life of New Plays program. This production by Plano’s new Black Flag Theatre Co. is the regional premiere.
Because of the subject matter—consciousness, identity, technology, and how they interact and trouble one another—Gibbons’ play is difficult but not impenetrable. Fans of the Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation will easily follow the conversation between Claire and Julian since there’s so much thematic overlap: What is the role of memory in forming identity? What is consciousness? Is there a fundamental difference between, for example, feeling empathy and pretending to feel empathy? Is the human brain anything more than organic technology? How do we know what we know?
The playwright does a superb job at having his characters explain complex technological and psychological theories, including that of its title, the uncanny valley, which is from a 1970 book by Japanese robotics researcher Masahiro Mori. At its core, though, this play is really about families, personal memories, and what it means to be human.
The main weakness with the script is the timespan of the action. The scenes take place over a few weeks, but there are few internal clues about the pace at which the scenes unfold. It was surprising to find that it was only a few weeks and not months or even years.
The final, physical confrontation between Claire and Julian also seems out of the blue. There isn’t any justification for how a 70-year-old scientist could slap the latest humanoid technology to the floor—but that’s a script issue, rather than acting or directing.
It's a strong production that leaves you with much to think about. It looks like Black Flag signals a new company worth watching.