Emilie Collyer’s “The Good Girl,” a racy new play about the perils of artificial intelligence, is cut from a similar cloth as HBO’s “Westworld,” and it contains echoes of “Frankenstein”—exemplary touchstones from the annals of cautionary sci-fi. But with its ephemerally short running time—it clocks in at less than one hour in its regional premiere at Fort Lauderdale’s Andrews Living Arts—this enigmatic black comedy illuminates so little of its futuristic world that it feels rushed. The production, courtesy of Primal Forces, plays like a work-in-progress in which the insights are muddled, and the potential is largely untapped.
In an anesthetized dystopia some years in the future, Amber Lynn Benson plays Anjali, the overseer of a brothel of sex robots whose (unseen) star android has begun to exhibit unusual behavior, namely crying after it “climaxes.” When the robot’s maintenance man, Ven (Jovon Jacobs), detects the anomaly, he questions Anjali. Together, they discover that the machine’s unique ability to mimic and absorb human behavior, and respond in turn, could make for groundbreaking business in a world deprived of old-fashioned emotion.
Mechanical intercourse, it seems, gets old. But artificial companions who are able to listen, plead, protest and feel fear? Who can offer the girlfriend experience one moment and satisfy a rape fantasy the next? That’s where the money is.
As the sex doll grows ever more self-aware, Anjali and Ven’s best-laid plans spiral out of their control. Witnessing this conclusion play out should probably crackle with suspense and intensity, but this production is oddly static. Keith Garsson directs with such clinical detachment that it feels, like the robot, essentially bloodless. The show’s one stimulating sex scene, engaged virtually by Benson and Jacobs from Lucite cubes at opposite ends of the stage, is an exception, but its role in the play’s narrative bewilders more than it reveals.
Indeed, Collyer seems to delight in confusing us along the way, opening scenes in medias res, and gradually dropping breadcrumbs of backstory until we finally, maybe, understand what’s going on. In a play this short and obtuse, this approach feels especially meretricious; ditto to the playwright’s juvenile overuse of profanity. (“If you’re not the one f***ing, you’re the one being f***ed,” asserts Anjali, in a typically colorful example.)
This does few favors to the actors, who sometimes seem as uncertain with what they’re selling as we do as consumers. Benson’s most emotional moment in the show—a crying jag while recalling a television show—is unpersuasive, and her inner life is unexplored. Jacobs efficiently captures his character’s conflicting desires for intimacy with Anjali and professional probity, but both actors seem hamstrung by the material.
The action plays out on this production’s most attractive attribute, the Natalie Travers scenic design, with its sleek mirrored backdrop and silver ceiling-suspended halos calling to mind a lower-fi “Blade Runner” interior. Some of the other tech elements leave more to be desired. David Hart’s sounds seem too canned to be coming from an adjoining room. And while costume designer Alberto Arroyo’s dress for Benson is a shimmering, metallic-blue statement piece, the bloodstained aprons the characters don later in the show are unconvincing; they resemble an artist’s canvas more than crime-scene cleanup rags.
Is “The Good Girl” a feminist polemic laid atop an A.I.-gone-awry primer? I tend to think so, but it’s anybody’s guess. I felt frustratingly little while watching the play, and not much more upon reflection. A little more clarity would have gone a long way.
“The Good Girl” runs through Oct. 29 at Andrews Living Arts, 23 N.W. Fifth St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $30. Call 866/811-4111 or visit primalforces.com.