“The Chinese Room” is provocative, riveting play at Williamstown Theatre Festival

The Chinese Room
Theatre Review by Macey Levin

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Miranda, the wizard Prospero’s teen-age daughter, upon seeing men other than her father for the first time, says, “Brave new world that has such people in ‘t.”  Prospero responds, “’Tis new to thee.”  The world premiere of Michael West’s play The Chinese Room currently at the Williamstown Theatre Festival explores a probable new world for the 21st century.

It is believed that in time computers will be virtually human; not only will they be able to think but also feel.  The Chinese Room was part of an experiment by John Searles rin opposition to this theory of artificial intelligence.  An English-speaking subject would be placed in a room with several batches of Chinese writings and symbols with instructions in English.  The subject would “translate” the material into English.  A party outside the room, reading the translation, would think the subject actually knew Chinese.  The intent was to show that one can be trained to do and say things but would not have intrinsic knowledge of what he or she was actually doing and, in all probability, did not have the emotional structure possessed by humans.

In the play Frank McClintock (Brian F. O’Byrne) is fighting with the use of electronic devices, including holograms and the Cloud, to maintain power over the firm he founded while facing an attempt to wrest control from him by his old friend Hal. He is determined to keep all the firm’s information so that he can use it to return his wife Lily (Laila Robins), who is suffering from dementia, to the woman she was before her mind started to deteriorate.  After rebooting Susannah (Sue Jean Kim), a droid he created, urging his son Zack (Elliot Trainor) to go to bed and then placating the confused Lily, Frank is visited by Daniel (Carson Elrod), another droid he designed, who has been sent by the firm to retrieve all the records and devices in Frank’s possession.  Daniel is focused on his assignment and has no regard for Frank’s pleas or emotional state. Thus begins the drama of the exploration of the Chinese Room theory.  

Frank and Daniel, with occasional input from Susannah, argue the differences between human beings and humanoids, neither convincing the other.  It becomes an us versus them conflict.  This sci-fi plot can be found in other works dating back to R.U.R., the 1920 play by Czech playwright Karel Capek, and contemporary works such as Star Trek and Star Wars.  

The story is provocative, the arguments riveting, but what makes this production gripping is the acting.  Kim and Elrod as the droids are mesmerizing.  If you didn’t know they were human you would believe they were droids with their automatic-sounding speech, jerky gestures as they lose power and the blank look in their eyes.  Elrod also channels Hal and he is completely different.  His physical bearing changes; the speech patterns and tone of his voice are altered.  It is a virtual tour de force.  O’Byrne, Robins and Trainor are also strong, but they do not have the acting challenges that Elrod and Kim must conquer.

Director James MacDonald moves the play, both pace and staging, apace, demanding that the audience pay attention and absorb the ideas and arguments that abound.  Dane Laffrey’s set, Frank’s study, is convincingly cluttered and messy with cartons of papers, file folders, worn furniture, suggesting Frank and Lily’s mental states.  The lighting by Eric Southern is fittingly shadowed since the content of the play itself is quite dark with its characters having hidden agendas.

Playwright West’s dialogue is sharp and plausible, given the characters’ place in the world and relationships.  A flaw of the play is that it has several endings.  The one that actually ends the work is somewhat unconvincing.  Regardless, there are a lot of ideas and controversy in this profound work.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents the world premiere of The Chinese Room by Michael West; Directed by James Macdonald; Scenic design, Dane Laffrey; Costumes, Jessica Pabst; Lighting, Eric Southern; Sound, Daniel Kluger; Fight director, Thomas Schall.
Cast: Brian O’Byrne (Frank), Elliot Trainor (Zack), Sue Jean Kim (Susannah), Laila Robins (Lily), Carson Elrod (Daniel) Running Time: two hours, fifteen minutes with one intermission on the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. July 13 to July 23, 2016. www.wtfestival.org Box Office: 413.597.3400

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