Los Angeles Theater Review: BUILD (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on October 29, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Build hasn’t started yet, but the minute you walk into the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse you feel drawn into another world by Sibyl Wickersheimer’s beautifully conceived and executed set. You’re in the middle of what looks like a mid-century Cliff May Rancho gone balefully to seed. Computer screens are everywhere, crap is piled high—you can practically smell the old take-out containers lying around. Ceiling beams extend over the audience, further bringing us inside this enigma.

Samuel Bernstein’s Stage and Cinema review of Geffen Playhouse’s BUILD in Los Angeles

The show takes its time getting started. The play seems to have a lot it wants you to think about—a lot to get off its chest—but you’re going to experience what it wants to communicate the way it wants you to, as if it’s a sentient being in its own right. It’s a tone that works. It makes the choices made by playwright Michael Golamco and director Will Frears seem once removed—nicely mirroring the A.I. (artificial intelligence) issues that help propel the story.

Essentially, Golamco has written a morality play, pitting artificiality, corporate control, and money against freedom, love, and a childlike sense of fun—all against the backdrop of computer gaming and innocence lost in the Silicon Valley.

Through success and personal loss, Kip, a games programmer, has grown isolated and paranoid. He is trying to finish the latest version of a hugely popular game called Maelstrom, working somewhat reluctantly with Will, his partner back in the day when they created Ape Attack, their first game, which then spawned a giant corporation. They got very rich by selling out, but now the company is owned by someone else.

Samuel Bernstein’s Stage and Cinema review of Geffen Playhouse’s BUILD in Los Angeles

Then there is Kip’s secret: A.I.—his artificial intelligence, capable of making itself 3-D or a hologram (it’s not completely clear), and created in the form of a lost love. The A.I. is increasingly concerned with searching for fulfillment and individuality in her own right.

Narratively, the play is concerned with whether Kip will regain his hope and innocent pleasure in gaming; whether Will is going to step away from his plush multi-millionaire lifestyle long enough to also rediscover the true spirit of play; and whether the A.I. will evolve into full personhood.

Golamco’s dialogue is layered and authentic. To me, uneducated in the world of computer game programming, his technological knowledge seems on target, and all of it, even the emergence of the A.I. as something beyond what can yet be accomplished with computers, feels plausible.

Yet I found my mind wandering for two reasons.

Samuel Bernstein’s Stage and Cinema review of Geffen Playhouse’s BUILD in Los Angeles

One is the pacing. Frears directs with an often laudable patience. There is an amazing moment near the end of the play when he allows Kip all the time in the world to accomplish a key plot point, and the stillness, the creeping pauses, the interminable wait, is incredibly effective. And in earlier parts of the play, the pacing feels pleasurably enigmatic. But somewhere in the middle of it all, I started getting antsy. The other reason isn’t just a question of directorial approach. The more Golamco gives his characters to say about the inhumanity of what they’re up to, the less fresh his observations feel—not wrong—his points are well taken—but there are bits I remember from various films and television shows, and the warnings feel more like musings from 1998 rather than 2012. In our massively interconnected world of technology, those 14 years might as well be a century.

Samuel Bernstein’s Stage and Cinema review of Geffen Playhouse’s BUILD in Los Angeles

Thomas Sadoski is elegantly dilapidated as Kip. He manages to be funny, pissed off, and monumentally self-pitying all at once. It’s an appropriately blurry star turn by an actor who is clearly playing for keeps. Peter Katona has a more difficult transition to make as his character, Will, confronts the seeming banality of what his life has become. The choice Will makes doesn’t ring as true or resonate as deep as it needs to for the work to come together completely.

I’m not sure what to make of the A.I. As the computer generated being, Laura Heisler has a lovely presence, but trying to give off a humanoid rather than human vibe doesn’t offer a lot of range. The idea of the A.I. and her dilemma is compelling. Her words and actions are sometimes not compelling enough.

Maybe the short run at the Geffen is an indication that Golamco wants to keep working on Build.

I hope so. I’ve got a feeling something spectacular wants to emerge here.

Samuel Bernstein’s Stage and Cinema review of Geffen Playhouse’s BUILD in Los Angeles

photos by Michael Lamont

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
scheduled to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com

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