Robots are a well-covered subject, and since Karel Čapek wrote R.U.R. in 1920 it’s has been discussed on the stage. And so it’s good to see a playwright address the topic creatively. In Patrick Vermillion’s play Jessica (produced Off-off-Broadway by Sanguine Theater Company with IRT Theater at the IRT Theater), the title character has been missing for four years. Her boyfriend, Allister, hires a Lyfe Industries engineer, Rudy, to create a duplicate of her. Life Industries generally makes sex robots, or “companions”, as Rudy prefers to call them. The new Jessica, less a robot than a sort of clone, is perfectly life-like and animated. She’s charming; she converses in the ordinary way. Rudy turns her on and off. “She has a working brain,” he says.
Allister and Rudy research the real Jessica’s life and input memories into the robot Jessica. The idea is to recreate her personality so that she’ll remember what she was doing the day she disappeared. They’re aided by Mari, Jessica’s life-long friend. Allister convinces Mari to enlist the aid of Jessica’s estranged sister, Lillian. The more memories they can put into their robot, the more likely she is to realize the memory of her disappearance. It’s a strained conceit but it works dramatically.
Lillian, however, sabotages the project and tells Jessica that she’s a robot. This is supposed to disorient her to the point of annihilation, but instead, Jessica comes to life, so to speak, like Galatea.
And so Allister, Mari and Lillian each wants a piece of Jessica, in the sort of situation that we find among ourselves. At this point we expect the robot-come-to-life to rebel, but Mr. Vermillion has better sense, and he confounds our expectations. Jessica the android rebuffs Allister when he touches her, saying “I’m a robot and you’re human.” She’s cooperative and sensible. She has a will of own, however; she knows how Jessica the human disappeared but refuses to tell them.
The play ends without answering all our questions. It’s not poor structure; it reflects life.
Each character has a clear intention in this play, and the actors serve the script well, with clear decisions. Alli Trussell as Jessica is suitably reserved, indeed, as if she’s been programmed. Michael Patrick Trimm creates a volatile personality in Allister, whom Mari calls “manipulative”. His performance is animated almost to a fault. Anna Nemetz as Mari and Will Sarratt as Rudi are recognizable as people we’ve met without depending on type. Alison Scaramella gives the show’s best performance - a terrific performance - as Lillian, whom Mari calls “mean”. She’s a very fine actress, understated, with an internal life that she eternalizes effortlessly.
Emily Jackson directs Jessica by letting the play speak for itself. She’s disappeared behind the show. She’s kept her the production disciplined and unaffected, enjoying each moment without dwelling on it. She might have directed Allister to take a moment go pause, though.
Tyler M. Perry’s set, the “simulation room” of Lyfe Industries, is great, simple and antiseptic, lifelessly grey with rectangular lines. Real people look out of place in this artificial world, and we’re constantly reminded of the pre-eminence of technology here. The play takes place over multiple days, and I would have liked to see some slight costume changes.
And so Mr. Vermillion takes a familiar theme and discusses issues that transcend it. And it’s well executed, to boot. Well done.