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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

"I was thinking about what you told me last night: That books tell you something, movies show you something, games let you do something." — Allison
The video game industry has become more profitable than movies or music. But it provides the setting for far fewer plays. Credit Build, winner of the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, with helping right the balance a bit. Minutes in though, one realizes that its new-fangled facade is constructed largely of recycled materials.

Kip (Thomas Sadoski) and Will (Peter Katona) are life-long friends and co-creators of the massively popular games Ape Attack and Maelstrom. More recently, the now extravagantly rich pair have split into opposing roles.

Kip is the tortured artist, holding up production with his unprecedentedly complex visions. Will is the businessman, trying to keep Kip to a schedule.

Playwright Michael Golamco finds little new in their tussle between creativity and profits, play and work. But he refreshingly mixes things up by making Will the suit earnestly caring and Kip the genius, all too often, a condescending pain.

The most familiar element ultimately provides its saving grace. Kip and Will both fell for the same woman, the bohemian Allison (Laura Heisler). She chose Kip but grew to realize his work, done alone at his computer, would always come first.

Kip and Willâ's scenes are punctuated by Heisler's Allison reciting her old e-mail messages to both men. She explains to Will the challenge of loving Kip": It breaks my heart to watch him. Because he looks so alone. Because in order to do what he does, he has to be so alone." Though still in love, she made the wrenching decision to leave him. While doing so, she was killed in a car accident.

As a result, the guilt-ridden Kip has grown even more anti-social. Holed up for over a year in his humble Palo Alto home, he has created an A.I. This Artificial Intelligence is a machine-based that has achieved consciousness, composed primarily of information about Allison.

Due to Kip's engineering brilliance, the A.I. has made a revolutionary leap. She can escape the tens of thousands of rules, as laid out by Kip, and dream.She too is played by Laura Heisler, at first on computer monitors. Then, in the show's one theatrical leap, she stands center-stage where the Allison monologues also take place.

Director Will Frears helps clarify that Heisler's appearance is a representation of a digital phenomenon. Filtered pings, heard through the sound system, play every time she speaks.

Ironically, Heisler's ghost in the machine supplies a galvanizing warmth and immediacy that's missing from the Will/Kip scenes. The A.I. wants Will to teach her more about Allison so that she can better lighten Kip's grief.Repeating the earlier pattern with Allison, Will develops an attachment to the A.I.

Build includes terms and information specific to the gaming industry Some may find this confusingly arcane. Others, fascinating. But Golamco is after something universally resonant.

He grasps that video games - and presumably Gloomâ's aim with his own work generate a passionate response when they filter down into our dreams. At their best, they help us escape the boxes we find ourselves in. This is what relationships also do, at their best.

The most open character, Allison, delivers what seems to be Golamco' overall outlook. Her favorite video game was Tetris because of its story: Shit is falling. She found it magical because the goal wasn't to stop the shit from falling. It asks you to manage the fall.

As with too much of the dialogue, Allison's explanation then gets obvious: And that's like life, isn't it? You're thrown into this crazy situation with no directions or instructions, and you've gotta. . . "Make something out of it."

Thomas Sadoski, as Kip, has the same habit here of not leaving well enough alone. His recent work on stage (Broadway's Reasons to be Pretty and Other Desert Cities) and TV (The Newsroom on HBO) prove he' the best young actor around at forging a dynamic connection with others in his scenes.

They're usually at their best in scenes with him. True to form, his final exchange with the A.I. is this productions’ highpoint.

But it's a steeper climb than necessary to get there. He's equipped Kip with Asberger traits, rarely making eye contact with Katona's Will, and a posture that evokes an off-kilter Quasimodo without the hump.

Perhaps Sadoski, or director Frears, feels that a "performance" decked out in overt choices will provide a buffer, making it easier for the audience to accept Kipâ's off-putting behavior.

The production's biggest problem is that Sadoski's Kip and Katona's Will never exhibit the necessary primal bond that each man rebuffs and requires to create his best self.

Golamco also makes too much of the play's plot a bit confusing. For instance, Kip supposedly hasn't left his house in one-to-two years and yet he also allegedly broke into the offices of the parent company to steal Maelstrom's game engine. A seemingly tragic turn in the penultimate scene led me to believe, in the final scene between Kip and Will, that a new A.I. has been created. It's a haunting possibility that probably lives only in my mind.

The Geffen's premiere production provides a lot to build on.The young actors prove, in the end, bright and appealing. The beams of Sibyl Wickersheimer''s set extend invitingly into the house, helping us feel like welcome guest despite the play and performances' more distancing elements.

Most importantly, the basic elements of Golamcoâ's characters and themes ricochet, like a game of Pong, tantalizingly against each other.

For most of the play, Will and Kip make progress in ridding their new creation of its bugs. Maelstrom 2 is eventually a crowd-pleasing success. I wish the same for Build.

Build by Michael Golamco
Directed by Will Frears
Cast: Laura Heisler (Allison/ The A. I.), Peter Katona (Will), Thomas Sadoski (Kip)

Stage Design by Sybil Wickersheimer
Costume Design by E.B. Brooks
Lighting Design by Daniel Ionazzi
Sound Design by VIncent Olivieri
Production Stage Manager: Young Ji
¨Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse 10886 Le Conte Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90024 310.208.5454
¨Running time: 85 minutes without intermission
Tuesday through Sunday until November 18, 2012
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