10 August 2017
Jessica, a play written by Patrick Vermillion, showing at the IRT Theater brings science fiction and artificial intelligence to the stage. But an overly ambition script falls short in execution as too many plot points must be explained in unnecessarily complicated detail, such as the minutia of implausible technological advancements As a result, it is difficult to be absorbed by the plot as the play gives short shrift to character development and emotional depth.
In 2013, Jessica (Alli Trussell) vanished. Her boyfriend Allister (Michael Patrick Trimm) hires tech savant Rudi (Will Sarratt) to recreate Jessica in android form. Rudi works for Lyfe, a company that primarily makes sexbots. But Allister convinces Rudi, to use Lyfe’s cutting edge technology to reconstruct Jessica so that she can answer the question of why she disappeared in the first place. Allister, single-minded in his pursuit, enlists the help of Jessica’s best friend Mari (Anna Nemetz) and Jessica’s cousin Lillian (Alison Scaramella) to recreate moments with android Jessica so that Jessica’s doppelganger is authentic.
So, Allister, Mari, and Lillian engage in interactive roleplay with the Jessica-bot, recreating memorable scenes from their lives. This inevitably leads the trio to argue over how past events played out. This roleplaying serves as the catalyst to delve into the intricacies of these relationships—this was the most intriguing part of the play, as the characters are most convincing and emotionally relatable when they advocate for recreating scenes based on their own personal memories and recollections of their times with Jessica (almost like Akira Kuroswa’s Rashomon but with more robot).
But too many times the play veers into exposition about the pseudo-science that’s driving the story. As I was watching the action unfold, I found myself repeatedly unable to remain engaged as unresolved plot points led to all sorts of nagging questions. Most of these questions related to the fact that a mysterious company that has remained hidden from the public and that primarily creates sex robots (as a side business) can recreate a human so perfectly that the robot will have the identical experiences and memories of the person it is modeled after. Also, it can do it for the introductory low price of $3,000,000. But that’s not the biggest issue I have. The reason my belief could not be suspended was that the characters (primarily Lillian and Mari) seemed so unaffected by these revelations. The science fiction was fine, but the human fiction seemed alien as I kept thinking that in 2017 everyone should be a bit more taken aback by how extraordinary these characters would find it if it were true.
While the acting was strong all around, the script failed to give Lillian and Mari the necessary disbelief that this situation was at all possible. To be fair, Lillian does ask some key questions. How do you recreate someone’s mental state? And how do you add something like depression to someone’s mental state when doctors today don’t even fully understand it? But these excellent questions seemed to go by the wayside once Jessica-bot “woke.”
As a huge fan of the television anthology Black Mirror, this play reminded me of the episode “Be Right Back” which also involves an android that replaces a lost loved one. In many respects, what worked best about the Black Mirror episode was its lack of exposition. It ignored most of the science and focused on the relationship and emotional aspects of a robot replacing a real person. But in Jessica, it seemed like every technological breakthrough was accompanied by a somewhat unsatisfying answer. It felt like the play was trying to explain the Force in Star Wars with a discussion of midichlorian cell count. No doubt, any attempt to explain huge existential questions about what it means to be human is bound to raise more questions than answers, especially in a 90 minute production. Sadly, the play’s script got mired in technological questions and missed an opportunity to explore more deeply the way in which individual memory plays into relationships and who has the rights to those memories. The play ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note, which in many respects was the best part of the play as the flash and dazzle were stripped away and Mari simply tried to recall a distant memory she once shared with her missing friend. Mari’s vulnerability added a depth that I wished had been more present of throughout.
Even with its flaws, I found myself still enjoying the relatively fast pace and continuing revelations as the story unfolded. Alli Trussell’s portrayal of Jessica, and her evolution as the android is especially convincing as she becomes more self-aware and showcases a range of developing emotions. If you’re a fan of science fiction in theater, there are certainly some great moments in this play, but unfortunately it feels as if it could have been so much more.