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There has been a lot of talk lately about the so-called Law of Unintended Consequences: that any course of action will produce an array of surprise results. I can't be certain exactly what the Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables was intending with its season-opener Comic Potential, but the results are both surprising and paradoxical. At first glance this recent New York and London hit is pretty standard Playhouse programming. Billed as a comedic romp from a mainstream writer, Comic Potential is a recent work from the master farceur Alan Ayckbourn. The play appears to fit squarely in the usual Playhouse mix of comedies and lightweight musicals, a strategy that has resulted in considerable success. The Coral Gables company boasts a solid subscription base of affluent, youngish professionals, the sort of demos that most theaters long for. But this strategy has a downside: A steady diet of pleasant, uncomplicated entertainment creates an expectation of same. And when something more offbeat and challenging is served up, expectation can turn into disappointment.
That's the situation the Playhouse is facing with Comic Potential. Its audience may expect shows with the complexity of a Mars bar, but here they get a salsa mole. As a result Playhouse fans may well view this production as a misfire. Yet it may be the most significant step in this company's creative development.
The play is set in "the foreseeable future when everything has changed except human nature." In a huge television studio, a trio of actors is working their way through a typical soap-opera hospital scene. Except these aren't your typical troupers; these are robots, known as "actoids," controlled by an offstage techie. The soap is being directed by one Chandler "Chance" Tate, a boozy former film director who has fallen on hard -- real hard -- times. Not only is his work absolute dreck but one of the actoids, a perky nurse clone labeled JC F31-333, has gone slightly haywire, laughing in unprogrammed moments. Worse, the set is invaded by a haughty network exec towing her latest boy toy, Adam Trainsmith, a young writer. Adam sees in "Jacie" an innate "comic potential" and wants to work with her. Jacie discounts her sense of humor as bad wiring, but as Adam shows her, her comic sense suggests that somehow she has a basic humanity.
What ensues is a strangely affecting romance between Adam and Jacie, which throws the studio into chaos and ultimately forces the mismatched couple to flee the studio into the dark city. While on the run as fugitives, many comedic adventures await them. But along the way, Jacie slowly begins to become conscious, and self-conscious, of what it means to be human -- and it both thrills and terrifies her.
Those expecting a neat, silly comedy will not be happy with Comic Potential, a piece that sloshes across genres. It's not even a comedy, really; more a sly satire and, ultimately, a doomed romance. There are several hilarious sequences here, but the story also heads into much darker, troubling territory and does so at a breakneck pace. That's part of the appeal -- you really have no idea where this story is heading. But the script has decided weaknesses. The long, talky story setup is very hard to follow and the final scene also seems overly long, with a de rigueur happy ending that is played without a trace of irony: Boy may meet android and boy may lose android, but will boy really, truly get android and live happily ever after?
If you can see past these problems, what's waiting in Comic Potential is sheer delight. Director David Arisco has served up a darkly funny futureworld, a fairy tale for adults. His acting ensemble is spectacular, headed by Claire Tyler, who is spot-on terrific as Jacie the android -- loopy, gangly, sweet, and silly by turns. Jacie doesn't know how to be human; instead she pulls up bits of performances past that seem appropriate -- clips of police dramas and soap romances she has performed in that still sit in her hard-drive memory. Tyler jerks from one recalled role to the next at warp speed, like Robin Williams used to do in his stand-up routines. This is a bravura performance, the pinnacle of Tyler's short but significant professional career.
She receives splendid support from an acting ensemble that would do any theater in the nation proud. Terrell Hardcastle, whose name could have sprung from a P.G. Wodehouse comedy, does a fine job as Jacie's intended swain, Adam, a gee-whiz Wodehousian juvenile who finds human tenderness in a cold corporate world. Bob Rogerson's take on roaring, self-pitying Chance is very sly. Soon after delivering an oration on comic timing, Chance suddenly encounters an apparent heart attack and in an exquisite sequence of just such, he inadvertently illustrates his point. Peter Haig, an unredeemable ham disguised as a distinguished thespian, is equally hilarious as Adam's media-magnate uncle. Then there's Lourelene Snedeker as a scheming corporate diva, and Lisa Morgan and David Kwiat and April Henry and Susie Kreitman Taylor and Joe Kimble, all in an endless tumble of cameos.
This lunacy is backed by the Playhouse's crack design team. M.P. Amico's brooding retro studio looms in the first act, then morphs into a series of wacky locales in the second. Mary Lunne Izzo, always a high-flying costume designer, has pulled free of gravity altogether here, with a dizzying array of whimsical getups.
Director Arisco has always been attracted to plays with formidable production challenges -- he is a born puzzle-solver. Now he is faced with a really tough puzzle: How does he keep his stalwart audience base while venturing into more complex fare? The Actors Playhouse gang has the talent, the physical facilities, and the apparent intention to step up to the top ranks of American regional theater. But will its audience go along with it? And will the local complainers, who carp about the problems in this theater scene, be prepared to support local companies that dare to dream great dreams?