Science fiction writers in the 21st century have an easy job. In the old days if a writer wanted to make a story about a sentient Artificial Intelligence they would have to set their stories in some distant future, or demand that their audience set aside their disbelief and just accept that a clunky 1980’s mainframe could achieve self-awareness. Now-a-days writers like Jeffrey Jackson don’t need to speculate about how far into the future it will be before computers become self-aware, because it’s certainly plausible that Apple or Google already has one in the works. That’s pretty much the premise behind the new off-Broadway play Two Point Oh.
Elliot Leeds (Played by Jack Noseworthy) is a very successful tech entrepreneur; a pastiche of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. He runs a massive company that makes cutting edge consumer electronics. Alas, despite his mastery of the digital world he still has trouble maintaining a healthy marriage, friendships and relations with his coworkers.
Elliot’s relationship problems quickly become small potatoes, because he dies in the first scene.
Luckily for him, he has secretly created a computer program that has all of his memories and his personality traits too. Playwright Jeffrey Jackson explains that this is the absolute cutting edge of Elliot’s research and that he has spent thousands of hours creating this unique prototype. It comes across as plausible within the story thanks to a slow build-up and lots of skepticism from Elliot’s wife Melanie (Karron Graves) and his friend Ben (James Ludwig).
The computer version of Elliot appears on a series of large monitors built into the upstage wall, and in a clever use of multimedia the real Elliot never actually appears onstage in person; he’s only shown in a video conference that uses the same monitors. All of these features combine to make it very easy for audiences to accept the science fiction aspects of the show then look at the human drama underneath.
The true story here is about Melanie trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. She spends the play taking comfort in a digital copy of her husband, and this echo of him is more perfect than the real thing. The AI version of Elliot has a flawless memory, he’s always available for her, and he doesn’t seem to have needs or wants of his own. He’s become the perfect husband. It is a deliberate and apt metaphor for how grieving people remember their lost loves as more perfect than they really were.
Of course the AI version of Elliot does have his own agenda, and while Melanie is playing out her love story, Ben has to deal with the dangers of an artificial intelligence so realistic that it could be considered alive. These issues are occasionally explored via a hilarious spoof of cable news reporters played by Michael Sean McGuinness. Is America’s government and media capable of addressing the legalities and ethics of artificial life forms? Not according to Jeffrey Jackson and his overtly contemptuous depiction of television journalism.
The show is set in the present day, so the set and multimedia design isn’t futuristic, but it does mimic the look of modern companies that are trying to look futuristic. The upstage wall is covered with video monitors and projection screens that have the slick design of an Apple store or the flashy designs of a cable newsroom that’s trying to appear hip and “Plugged in.”
There is a sleek glass table built into the upstage wall too, and this rotates around to change scenes quickly (There is an identical table built into the other side of the rotating wall). This and a couple of translucent chairs make up the entire minimalist set, a lot like the counter at an Apple store…
Sci-fi fans will see many familiar themes addressed in Two Point Oh, but the play takes its time before following the standard pattern that Omnipotent AI’s always seem to take. Along the way it addresses the very real idea of seeking immortality through artificial intelligence.
Coming at a time when people are essentially interacting with virtual echoes of their friends through social media, Two Point Oh is a timely look at a classic science fiction theme. It is playing through October 20th at 59 East 59 in Manhattan. Tickets and more information is available at: www.59e59.org