The first edition of How To Win Friends And Influence People contained an introduction that claimed people only use ten percent of their brain. This isn’t true, but it nonetheless popularized the belief that, if only certain conditions were met, humans could achieve vastly greater cognitive ability. In the last century there have been dozens of science fiction pieces that speculate on what would happen should any person achieve super-human intelligence, the most recent examination of this issue being DEINDE, an off-off-Broadway play by August Schulenburg.
Flowers for Algernon, Lawmower Man, that episode of NewsRadio about “Smatthew”; this sort of story never ends well and DEINDE is no exception. It’s set in the year 2051 when a deadly virus is killing off humanity. A cure is being researched by a team of brilliant biologists who aren’t quite brilliant enough. Luckily, they’re offered the chance to use a new technology called D.E.I.N.D.E. that will enhance their intelligence with only a few side effects….
Of course these side effects can be minimized by following four simple rules. Exactly what the rules are isn’t important; what’s important is that they all get broken over the course of the show leading to several members of the team transcending humanity, while others stubbornly refuse to use this wondrous technology at all.
The first act is generally played for laughs, Schulenburg’s snappy dialog is full of clever turns of phrase like referring to an overly optimistic character as “The love child of sunshine and rainbows”. Director Heather Cohn tends to ere on the side of too much humor for the first half of the play, but by the second act, things have taken a much more serious turn. While the witty dialog and funny supporting characters are entertaining, the play works much better when treating the subject seriously, especially as the story begins to explore the differences between intelligence and wisdom or morality.
Schulenburg does a good job of establishing his nerd cred in a scene referring to the Star Trek episode where Picard learns to play the Ressikan flute. Alas, this is a criminally wasted opportunity to mention the episode where Barclay uses the holodeck to plug his brain into the Enterprise’s computer, much like the characters in DEINDE do.
The playwright also shows that he’s put a great deal of thought into how enhanced intelligence would affect human culture. What sort of poetry, music or humor would appeal to these mental ubermen? Schulenburg goes into each of these matters in impressive detail.
Many of the concerns of DEINDE have been explored in other mediums, including the recent film Limitless (And the novel The Dark Fields), and almost every beat should be familiar to genre-savvy audiences. However the piece is held up by its excellent dialog and performances.
Ken Glickfeld plays Malcom Forner, the oldest member of the team; nearly a hundred years old, he’s the only character who can recall the days before e-mail and the internets. Glickfeld plays this reluctant hero as a mixture of grumpy old man, and the glowingly wise voice of reason in a time of desperation.
Matthew Trumbull plays a comic Russian who clearly knows more than he lets on about the dire side effects of his ingenious device. But Isaiah Tanenbaum and Rachael Hip-Flores end up stealing the show thanks to a plot element that has them speaking and moving with precise coordination (No doubt thanks to the Director’s guiding hand).
The set and prop design (By Will Lowry) all use a very effective theme; everything is made of transparent plastic. The walls, computer screens, phones, tablet computers and musical instruments are made of clear flat plastic panels. It’s futuristic without directly speculating on exactly what the gadgets of the year 2051 will look like.
DEINDE will feel warmly familiar to fans of transhuman science fiction, but rather than a plod down a well-tread road, it’s a deep examination of these issues that often focuses on new concepts within this sub-genre. Theater-goers who aren’t familiar with cyberpunk tropes will find DEINDE to be an excellent entry point.
DEINDE Plays through May 12th at the Secret Theatre in Queens NY. Tickets and more information can be found at the Flux Theatre’s website.