Review: Awaiting the Singularity with "Nothing Human"

Nothing Human

Written by Duncan Pflaster

Directed by Aiza Shane

Presented by Cross-Eyed Bear Productions at The Chain Theatre

312 W 36th St., 4th floor, Manhattan, NYC

October 15-26, 2019

Anthony Irizzary and Samantha Simone. Photo provided by Emily Owens PR
The trope of artificial intelligences turning against humanity upon achieving sentience is long-established (suggesting, perhaps, that the capacity for evil is inseparable from consciousness); and one need look no farther than the advertising for Dark Fate, the sixth (!) film in the Terminator franchise, for its continued prominence. Although Duncan Pflaster's Nothing Human, making its world premiere as one of the New York International Fringe Festival's BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) productions, features an evolving AI as a character, it subverts the trope of the malevolent AI, relegating it to a movie written by another character about a time-traveling alien computer. Much good science fiction is at its core about the human its core, and Nothing Human might be seen to fit into this tradition, much as Dark Fate might fit well as an object of the play's examinations of storytelling and nostalgia. Explored over a hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the concerns of Nothing Human are expansive and wide-ranging, yet it always returns to the simple, central question of why humans perpetrate "evil" acts.

Set in 2011, Nothing Human follows two parallel plots. In the first, Alberto (Anthony Irizarry), who fled New York City after a mysterious phone call telling him not to go into work the next day caused him to escape being killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, meets Amy (Samantha Simone) in a bar in Boca Raton, Florida, just after Osama bin Laden is killed, and they hit it off. Now Alberto, who has been living in constant paranoia under an assumed name in Boca and has secretly brought the advanced AI ALBA (Alexandra Cremer) with him, must decide how far, if at all, to let Amy into his life. Amy has a brother, Benny (Dante Jayce), who, as a 9/11 truther and conspiracy theorist blogger, is just as paranoid in his own way (and racist to boot). In the second plot, playwright Alex (Roberto Alexander) has sold his script for a film about a time-traveling alien computer being responsible for the world's great historical atrocities, including the Holocaust and 9/11. Alex meets stage actress Abigail (Shakeerah-Imani) at a party thrown for him by his partner of over a decade, Zach (Adam Patterson), and helps both her and their mutual friend, stage actress Angela (Sarah Kaufman), to land parts in his movie. Soon enough, however, the studio is interfering in Alex's vision, including casting currently hot rapper Antony "Linc" Lincoln (Amir Royale), and setting the two plots on a collision course.

Sarah Kaufman, Amir Royale, Shakeerah-Imani.
Photo provided by Emily Owens PR
Nothing Human raises a number of issues—from, unsurprisingly, the technological (for example, the internet pastime of misattributed quotes and the question of whether an AI can understand love or humor) to the artistic (the problems of representation in theater and film and, as ALBA points out, the tendency of art to endorse endpoints of comfort and settledness when progress requires risk and change) to the social (marriage, sexuality, and religion, to name a few)—in such a way that they illuminate one another. Perhaps most significant for the play's ultimate thesis are the individual blindspots, the unquestioned comfort zones and beliefs, of a set of characters who are diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and body type. To take just one example, Linc turns out to be unexpectedly friendly and open for a wealthy, sought-after artist and decries the narrow standards of "Hollywood pretty" that preclude Angela from the lead role, but he also eventually reveals a troubling and less progressive attitude where Alex and Zach are concerned. Each character reveals a similar flaw at some point, which speaks to the play's positioning of the capacity for change as a counterweight to the capacity for evil (on a large scale, ALBA, of course, changes, but a change such as Zach noting that his ideas about marriage are no longer the same after 10 years is equally important).

Nothing Human is tightly plotted, and its numerous moving parts come together satisfyingly. The production also builds a vivid sense of the world that these characters inhabit with only a few stools and chairs, the actors, and some projections, which establish scene titles, dates, and locations but also represent elements like ALBA and her online searches. The cast is strong, with Royale and Patterson generating some of the biggest laughs, Irizarry and Simone creating engaging chemistry and nuance in their characters' relationship, and Alexander giving a spirited performance tracing Alex's increasing disillusionment with breaking into the film business.

If you only see one play this month in which bin Laden and Hitler dance to hip hop through a protagonist's nightmare, make it Nothing Human.
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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