Old Harold Pinter, New Alan Ayckbourn

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Among the stranger aspects of watching a beloved art form closely over many years is that both mediocrity and excellence sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two decades ago, for instance, I was stunned to discover that Harold Pinter, an author capable of greatness, could also produce a "lite" boulevard version of his own esthetic called, too pertinently, Betrayal. Now I'm similarly stunned to find that an author I'd long thought of as a mannered, British, comic carpenter, Alan Ayckbourn, has written a play as interesting and suitable to American taste as the farces of Preston Sturges, Kaufman and Hart, and Charles Ludlam.

I confess I don't know all of Ayckbourn's 50-odd dramas, but I do know the most famous and celebrated ones (including Absurd Person Singular and the trilogy The Norman Conquests). Comic Potential is better than any of them. It also contains the most astonishing performance by an actor currently on view in New York.

The action is set in the future, when television has become even dumber than it is today and actors have been replaced wherever possible by robots called actoids. The masses, it seems, either don't notice the difference or don't care, requiring only programming technicians who know how to "put in the story lines and tweak the emotions" (as a jaded director puts it). A young wannabe comedy writer named Adam, whose rich uncle owns a tv studio, discovers that a pretty blonde actoid there named JCF 31333 (Jacie Triplethree for short) is different from the others?she shows creative initiative and something like an original sense of humor?and he sets his mind on writing a special for her. Writer and actoid soon fall in love, run away together, become tabloid news, face dire obstacles to their love and art, and ultimately triumph after delightfully absurd twists that shed surprising light on the nature of comedy and originality.

I'll come back to the modest depths in the play. None of it would come off nearly so brightly or intelligently without the actress Janie Dee, who, in this Manhattan Theater Club production directed by John Tillinger, is reprising the role of Jacie she originated in England. Dee is glitteringly precise and irresistibly endearing, making a performance of enormous technical difficulty seem easy and natural. She finds grace in mechanical body movements, melody and resonance in a restricted vocal range, and the sweet humor of her character benefits crucially from the support of Alexander Chaplin as Adam. Chaplin's confident, Hugh-Grant-like insouciance provides just the right charmingly worldly platform Dee needs to make Jacie's sincerity seem like poise rather than simple naivete. It's because her character is devoid of irony that it can come off as an object of desire, a virtuosic clown and a child learning to be a human being from scratch, all at once.

Ayckbourn has wandered into trendy territory here, and he orients himself remarkably well. His theme is anxiety at the interface of man and machine: an exceptional robot wants to be human and rise above the boredom and meaninglessness of robotic life, and this challenges the humans around her to live up to their purported meaningfulness. Decades ago, the theater handled this theme routinely (in expressionistic works such as Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine and Karel Capek's R.U.R.), but in our era it's been almost entirely ceded to film (think of Blade Runner and Bicentennial Man)?no doubt largely because theater people assume that sci-fi effects onstage can't compete with those in film. Ayckbourn's inspiration was to ignore the problem of effects entirely (apart from acting). He treats his robot?who is, after all, played by a human being?as a completely competent and qualified player in a romantic comedy, and makes her "normalcy" in that context the occasion for discerning thought on the essence of the comic.

Comedy, in the play's world, is a dying art. Adam, however, is a comic film buff who first comes to the tv studio to meet one of his idols, Chandler Tate, a brilliant old director who was long ago farmed out to make daytime soaps with actoids after the studio decided his art was too expensive. Chandler's alcoholic corrosiveness is nicely captured by the actor Peter Michael Goetz. He is at first wary of Adam, but the kid's cheekiness melts through his defensive cynicism and inertia, and he agrees to teach the youngsters a few basics of the form: that comedy's fundamentals are surprise and anger, for instance, and that a comedian's worst choice is always "the middle ground."

Ayckbourn thus spells out a set of standards and definitions against which any comic play, including this one, is to be measured, and then proceeds to demonstrate their value without ever seeming to serve any masters other than laughter and his situation's comic truth. We hear, for instance, that surprise is never a question of inventing the absolutely new (always an absurd concept in art) but rather of finding variations on the old that the audience doesn't expect. Practically everything Jacie says and does is then a live demonstration of this?from mouthing bromides when stuck for an answer to producing schmaltzy music (from within her body) in emotionally fraught situations to throwing custard pies?all her choices being hilarious variations on tired conventions. Even her romantic appeal as an ingenue depends, flatteringly, on models from the past, since her flawless memory of the behavior of the many other ingenues she has played and seen is what enables her to judge what is surprising.

Is artistic creativity, then, nothing more than a technical capacity that can be easily taught to any advanced form of artificial intelligence? That question is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and the wounded human pride behind it recalls other ego-blows that have proven dangerous in the past. Think of the Inquisition's prosecution of Galileo, the Scopes monkey trial and the 1998 protests outside the Manhattan Theater Club after Terrence McNally suggested in Corpus Christi that Jesus might have been gay. On leaving Comic Potential, it occurred to me that someone really ought to call the Christian League and let them know that it includes a character named Adam who wants to mate with a non-human named J.C. (!) and reads the Bible's creation story to her in bed as a sort of ersatz foreplay. The possible outrage wouldn't teach us anything, but it'd be a funny variation on an old theme that might nudge this delicious production toward a longer run on or off Broadway.

Manhattan Theater Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through Jan. 7.

By Harold Pinter

Pinter's 1978 Betrayal is a cold, clever game of a play being given a fittingly cold and clever new production on Broadway. Crisply directed by David Leveaux with three crackerjack actors in the lead roles?Juliette Binoche, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery?it's as fine, polished and nuanced a staging as any fan of the work could hope for. Precisely because it's so clear, it also shines a light on how limited this usually ambitious author's ambitions are here. Betrayal is about an extramarital affair that, in itself, is never made all that interesting to either the participating lovers or the audience. It becomes an interesting puzzle because Pinter tells the story backwards (a gimmick he didn't invent but applies with admirable precision), burying either a large or a small casual betrayal in each scene, so that the audience is constantly preoccupied with thinking through who knew what, when, how and why. The writing is always marked by his characteristic terseness and economy, of course, and the nature of the mini-betrayals often can't be discerned until much later. All the little mysteries, though, mostly succeed in distracting spectators from how few reasons they've been given to care more than superficially about the characters or their emotional trials.

The closest the play comes to a genuinely written role is Robert, who learns of his wife Emma's affair with his best friend Jerry, then fails for years either to leave her or to acknowledge his greater attraction to Jerry. Slattery does an excellent job of papering over Robert's massive denial with a sagacious social pride and above-it-all fortitude. Schreiber makes the essentially dull role of Jerry as absorbing as anyone could, filling out its passivity and thickness with his splendid repertory of brooding glances and pouts. Binoche is also ideal as Emma: a fluttering, wistful bundle of wasted sensual potential who never sees that none of the men she attaches herself to are really interested in her. On top of all this, Rob Howell's set is eloquently spare and antiseptic?three tall ivory walls adorned only with narrow, shuttered windows and different, scanty furniture pieces for each scene. The only problem, really, is the play, which, for all its intellectual diversion, still comes off as a world-class author's glib descent into surface, mood and strategy.

American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 719-9393, through Jan. 28.

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