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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Chinese Room

I am not talking to you—I made you! — Frank
Pictured (L to R): Laila Robins, Brían F. O’Byrne, and Sue Jean Kim. (Photograph T. Charles Erickson).
The Chinese Room by Irish playwright Michael West opens in a comfortable study in a Connecticut. home, or what was once a comfortable study. Now disheveled, it is strewn with papers, books, boxes of files, schematics and electronic equipment. Even the fireplace acts as a storage unit.

This chaotic mess is the life's work of Frank (Brian F. Byrne) who is desperately trying to communicate with his former associates at the company he founded and from which he is now about to be terminated without access to vital data. It is obvious that we are in a future time where humans merely walk about communicating on invisible holographic screens and speak at will to the cloud.

In this tense situation Frank is constantly interrupted by his son Zach (Elliot Trainor), a flawed humanoid, Susannah (Sue Jean Kim) and his bewildered wife Lily (Laila Robins). At first it is difficult to tell if Frank is human because he is so compulsive and cold. He repeatedly orders Zach to bed though the child is begging to be told a story and obviously needs attention.

In fact, everyone in the room is begging for Frank's attention, but he is obsessed with preserving and obtaining his life's work in order to salvage what is left of Lily's memory that's waning due to early onset dementia. As he types furiously in his effort to circumvent his company's decision, it is apparent that Susannah is more than a humanoid — she is the repository of Lily's memories and experiences, able to compute the memories but unable to feel or make them.
The term "Chinese Room" refers to a thought experiment by John Searle, which challenges the claim that a program can create a mind, understanding or consciousness no matter how intelligent its creator may make it function. Searle argues that there is a great distinction between the simulation of human intelligence and the actual functioning of the human mind. Frank is determined to create memories for his droids and repeats his mantra that, "memory itself is not a thing, it is a process."

Into this chaos Daniel(Carson Elrod) intrudes. A humanoid, now head of security, he has been charged by the company to retrieve all of Frank's records, files, and mechanical devices related to his work. Frank and Daniel match wits over Daniel’s order to retrieve the data versus Frank's need to save and access Lily's memory program. Daniel sees himself as equal or superior to Frank, the man who designed him, but Frank contemptuously states, "I am not negotiating with an appliance."
As Frank, Daniel and Susannah struggle to achieve their desires, we come to understand their desperation . Though Susannah and Daniel are cyborgs, they have developed or assumed objectives of their own, which are contrary to Frank's plans.

Other authors have explored the potential for disaster by creating human-like beings. In Karel Capek's 1921 play, R.U.R, the "robots" are in rebellion and want more than their creators ever imagined. Mary Shelley' Frankenstein also comes to mind as having provided enough of a caveat to all future tinkerers with the life force. In The Chinese Room there is a comic element which distracts us from the threat of artificial intelligence. There is also sympathy for these beings who are never accepted as equal.

Sue Jean Kim and Carson Elrod as humanoids are riveting. Watching them struggle as individuals, their every gesture, eye movement and body contortion convey the disparity between the human program and the mechanical apparatus that delivers each command. It is a tour de force of timing and dexterity as they slip in and out of consciousness, are rebooted and reassert their demands. Elrod is especially brilliant when he is called upon to channel Hal, Frank's former partner now adversary, from a distance. As Hal tries to relate to Frank through Daniel, the droid's klutzy near-misses are stunningly nimble.

O'Byrne's Frank is at times dense to the point of cruelty, but when he slips into a beautifully rendered monologue about the couple's last trip together we sense the profound loss of his partner in every sense of the word. Lily and he worked and loved together but now he has to cope with the wreckage of her dwindling memory. "It's amazing sometimes. A window opens and we see each other again."

Laila Robins' Lily is beautifully vague as she too slips in and out of awareness. Some of her casual non-sequiturs though humorous, are quite profound: "Nobody is where they should be." It is through her occasional sparks of vigor that we realize the depth of Frank's grief as her memory ebbs. Her heartbreaking, "I'd rather die than fade away like this," touches our deepest fears.

Director James MacDonald's staging deftly draws the audience into this drama but the play itself is too long and the author seems unable to settle on an ending. The last thirty minutes are cumbersome and the impetus of this intriguing play dissipates in a series of anticlimaxes.
The scenic design by Dane Laffrey implies that this once beautifully appointed room and hallway was the gracious home of two brilliant scientists where frenzied work has replaced decoration. The home is dwarfed by the backdrop of twinkling stars which evokes the feel of timelessness and continuity. Lighting designer Eric Southern's work light illumination and mood lighting create an ambient insecurity.

The music and sound design by Daniel Kluger lends that otherworldly touch to a sci-fi love story and costumes by Jessica Pabst underscore each character's situation with finely nuanced details. The premise of The Chinese intriguing, but it is the acting that drives home the play's themes.

Editor's Note: We've added The Chinese Room to our page of descriptions and reviews of science-related plays here.

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The Chinese Room by Michael West
Directed by James MacDonald
Cast: Brian F. O’Byrne (Frank) Elliot Trainor (Zack) Sue Jean Kim (Susannah) Laila Robins (Lily) Carson Elrod (Daniel)
Scene Design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting design: Eric Southern
Costume design: Jessica Pabst
Sound design: Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Fight Director: Thomas Schall Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, includes one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage
From 7/13/16; opening 7/17/16; closing 7/23/16.
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 18 performance

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