THEATER REVIEW: "Uncanny Valley"

It had to happen. Neuroscience and computer technology have made such huge strides that human cloning is now possible (if not legal), and it’s time theater caught up with the rest of the scientific world.

The film industry beat us to it, first with “Her” and then this year’s “Ex Machina.” But now – taking the topic to its logical limit – is Thomas Gibbons’ two-hander “Uncanny Valley,” playing through May 10 at San Diego Repertory Theatre. This is the play’s third production as part of a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere.”

I subtitle this piece “Training Your Bot,” because that’s what neuroscientist Claire (Rosina Reynolds) is doing, slowly and meticulously.

It’s a bit unsettling at first glance: the bot, named Julian (Nick Cagle), is nothing but a head, neck and shoulders sitting on a box on Claire’s desk. He responds to commands like “open your eyes” and “turn your head,” but does it in typical jerky, bot-like fashion. He also thinks and talks, but not as fluidly as Claire would like. Her job is to teach him to appear human.

We watch him go through the phases: first the engineers give Julian one arm, then the second (and he demonstrates bot-like, emotionless skill on the flute). Then, wonder of wonders, legs! And soon he’s walking around like – well, like a person. Sort of. The idea is to avoid the “uncanny valley” – the point at which humans realize that the being they are interacting with is artificial, and become uncomfortable.

When he’s become enough like a human to want dance lessons, Claire tells him about the last step: he is to spend some time with the engineers, who will download the entire personality, indeed the DNA, memories, knowledge and personhood of a dying millionaire who has paid $240 million for the opportunity – and whose name also “happens” to be Julian.

Claire, who has worked with her now-retired husband on artificial humans since the beginning, is delighted at her success – at least until the world intrudes and the “new” Julian’s 44-year-old son threatens a lawsuit.

Whoa. At this point this audience member wanted to go sit in a coffee shop with a few fellow theatergoers and kick this notion around a bit. And that’s the value of “Uncanny Valley”: There is plenty of ethical meat to chew on here.

Director Jessica Bird has the right cast and knows what to do with them. Reynolds plays Claire with a researcher’s enthusiasm but the sorrow of a woman with family problems.

Cagle gets the chance to show off some terrific moves, both natural and automaton-like, and has an uncanny (pardon the expression) way of sounding just a little creepy. It’s a terrific performance.

Scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts gives them a palatial office suite, and Michelle Hunt Souza has designed some gorgeous costumes for Reynolds. Kristin Swift Hayes and Kevin Anthenill contribute fine lighting and sound designs as well.

Science can solve problems. It also has a way of coming back to bite us. “Uncanny Valley” reminds us of this is in an eerily entertaining way.

The details

“Uncanny Valley” plays through May 10, 2015 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 70 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Shows are, Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2, 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or click HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.