You’d have to fight hard these days to avoid all the carrying on in print and elsewhere about Artificial Intelligence, or the everywhere proclaimed A. I. The constant implications seem to be that it won’t be long before humans are obsolete. Who knows whether that day is far off or just around the corner? That it’s even a possibility keeps cropping up, as if to put yet another unnecessary concern into a global climate already steeped in worry.
That all sorts of diverse allusions to good old A. I. accrue shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been following the EST/Sloan Project, the 25-year-old collaboration between Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that results in a new EST play recognizing some aspect of science just about annually as well as 350 staged productions so far on other stages.
This year the EST item centers on – what else? – exhilarating, foreboding, inescapable A. I. The play is the somewhat smart Smart. The playwright is Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, who’s imagined a domestic drama about three people living daily lives in which Artificial Intelligence is playing a still relatively small but growing role.
On Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma’s comfortable set of a middle-class living-room, Elaine (Kea Trevett) is attempting to train her recalcitrant, declining mother Ruth (Christine Farrell) on using an Alexa-Siri-like device called Jenny (voice by Sherz Aletaha).
Though Jenny is easing some domestic needs like turning lights on and off and playing music like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Ruth is resisting it. She’s resisting having an aide because, she claims, he steals. She’s resisting the oatmeal Elaine prepares for her. Rather than eat it, she hides it under a couch cushion, where Elaine eventually discovers many discarded oatmeal meals.
Elaine, at the end of her tether, is nonetheless again living with her mother while pursuing a real estate broker career. She’s fallen into that after abandoning an attempt as lead singer in an all-women punk-rock fusion band. She hasn’t lost her voice, however, which is clear enough when she sings along with a Dylan recording the always accommodating Jenny broadcasts.
(Jenny does do a dirty trick by quoting conversations she shouldn’t be listening to, but that’s an A. I. discussion for another time.)
Back to the story in progress: All the while burdened with her testy, tetchy mom, Elaine is mourning the loss of heartthrob Laura, another fusion band member. The loss is somewhat leavened by the arrival of Gabby (Francesca Fernandez), who isn’t all that gabby. Through much of the first act, she’s been wandering around the set between an upstage computer and a downstage set of electric drums.
It turns out that Gabby, inhabiting a temporary apartment at a different location, is a scientist, specializing in – guess what – Artificial Intelligence. She meets Elaine ostensibly when looking to switch domiciles. Truth is, the encounter isn’t entirely accidental – about which no spoiler will be spilled here.
At that initial introduction, casual conversation leads to Elaine’s singing and Gabby’s drumming. A romantic interest is sparked, but a raging fire doesn’t quickly develop. Elaine and Gabby, patently absorbed with each other, are beset by a few external obstacles. Ruth, now the victim of a stroke, takes up time, which is mirrored by Gabby’s reports on her father’s being a stroke victim.
Worse, are the couple’s differing personalities. Elaine is looking for her next Laura and even has a brief rapprochement with the ex. Gabby, occupied by her A. I. contemplations, isn’t certain what she wants from anything or even if she can bear to stay in any town for more than two years.
Establishing the various and often heated emotional conflicts, playwright Hamilton keeps them going, which eventually becomes a problem. Or maybe not. It may be she’s calculatedly getting at something meaningful in Elaine’s and Gabby’s stalled situation. Could be that their finding themselves unable to settle on any resolution but instead repeating their friction-riven confrontations is exactly the point Hamilton wants to drive home.
Hamilton could be theorizing that while the Artificial Intelligence hullabaloo is soaking the airwaves, we humans continue wrestling with the daily emotions that robots (other than any Star Wars types) haven’t experienced and perhaps never will. It’s a thoughtful, provocative point, but as Elaine, Ruth and Gabby cope or don’t, Hamilton’s play remains repetitive and unresolved.
But even in dramas exploring lack of resolution, there needs to be some modicum of dramatic resolution. Nevertheless, do attribute to Hamilton a nifty ear for dialogue and a smart (here’s where her title connects) sense of the way we live today.
Supporting Hamilton’s efforts are the three players, as directed with sensitivity by Matt Dickson. Trevett gets Elaine’s consternation and longing, just as Farrell gets Ruth’s succumbing to memory loss and Fernandez gets Gabby’s self-assurance deficiency.
Often in flawed pieces, there’s a giveaway line. In Smart the line is, “So what’s the problem?” At the end of this day, Hamilton hasn’t completely inserted and settled the problem.