Universal Robots

If I’m going to tell you what I thought of Universal Robots, I should actually start with a list of caveats that essentially mean that my perspective on this show is utterly worthless. When I tell you what I thought of this show, I’m saying something that doesn’t mean anything to anyone because, although every person’s experience in every live performance is different, I’m bringing a giant bag of stuff to this thing.

At the root of any production of this play is the script, which deserves an entire rant exclusive to the production. The way that information is given to us is pitch perfect, and I think, if anything, is Mac’s real gift as a writer. The script unfolds like a continental drift, like magnificent plates pushing together an inch at a time and leaving you with craggy mountains. All the way through the first act, you get… I want to say hints, but they’re statements, they’re revelations without context, so that when you finally begin to piece together the history that Mac wrote, the intellectual thrill feels like your lungs filling with helium.

There is a meeting of self-congratulatory hyper intellectuals, not unlike my group of friends, and each is a critic of, and an ass to, and a lover of,each of the other members. There is an amazing moment where the playwright’s friends mock his play *As it is happening*, calling from across the room and being shushed. There’s an incredible vision as a poet communist verbally attacks the Christian democratically elected President, and the President notices, understands, and doesn’t really

It could be Mac’s commentary on us, but it isn’t. It takes a good stretch of the play to discover, but it’s a love letter from the Robots to their human creators, a paean to the very inessential things that the Robots revolt against later. Since the show, I find myself thinking – if irony is the mark of a weak man, then existentialism is the mark of an under-utilized mind. If you have time to ponder your place in the universe, there are probably dishes not being washed.

And, the first act of the play involves scattered scenes, disorganized factions who line up and don’t and miss their spot. At one point, in an argument, one character finds herself eloquently losing herself and ending up on the far side of her point of view, and another character says, “Who’s side are you on?”, an incredible little bomb that Mac drops on us, a little reminder of the difference between men and computers – that the beginning and end of our programming isn’t Ones and Zeros but shades of grey.

Rather quickly, the script begins dividing people into pairs, and even though those pairs shift and create different patterns, he’s laying the foundation for where we’re going. A brother and sister. A woman and a Barkeep. A daughter and a parent, the parent and the spouse. A man and a woman. A woman and a Robot. It’s amazing, and that motif continues. When the Robots gather for war, the main character needs a *partner*, needs another Robot to make the plan.

There is so much more. The investigation into our humanity is as scorching and stinky as digging shit out of your nails. Why make Robots look like humans if they really are machines? What’s wrong with a woman using the Robot sexually? What’s wrong with a man doing it? What if he wants a Robot that looks like a child? What is it worth to be good and right? What do you do with the moral implications of technology? How can a machine, incapable of independent thought be evil?

It’s thrilling. It’s invigorating. It’s what is supposed to happen when you go to the theater. Movies are made for explosions and boners, the theater is here for some CHURCH. You can watch Schindler’s List, but the showers just don’t get you WET. This is what theater CAN do, but seldom does, and in this case it does.

And then, the Moment That Mac Rogers KILLS You, which he just loves. I’m did a reading last night, and I know where the line is. This play has it – and it’s smaller than the end of Sky Over Ninevah, it’s better slight of hand than Second String, it’s more deadly than the end of Coffee Girl, it’s more breath-taking than Hail Satan, it’s a deeper drink than St. Ignatius.

Two Robots are faced with a choice, a life or death decision, and they choose love. I hate doing this, I’m going back to the top to write “SPOILERS” because I hate doing this, but I can’t talk about the play without saying it. The Robots are told that one of them must die, and each won’t allow the other. When asked why, they simply say, “We
belong to each other.”

These machines, these tools, these *slaves* understand what ownership is. And in that one moment, they transcend it, they discover, without prompting and without knowing it themselves, love. And the minute that they love each other, they cease to be Robots, they become Things With Souls. They become people.

That’s Mac’s answer. Mac’s answer is simply that the difference between an abacus and a person is love. The beating heart and the cell division isn’t the answer. I overheard Mac saying he wanted to explore the human soul in both this piece and in Hail Satan, and this answer is… Can I admit that I’m crying as I write this? When they say, “she belongs to me” and then “he belongs to me…” That’s my child, my
wife, all of you. That’s the truth.

The acting overall is far better now than it was in 2007. There’s a comfort and a truth to the moment-to-moment in this play in the acting that wasn’t there when Mac directed it. The main characters, played by David, Jason, Jennifer and Ben, are really sensational each. David’s character is self-satisfied to the point of almost losing charm, but he does the really tough thing and holds the line, never allowing his character to become something he isn’t fighting for.

Jason… I can’t talk about it. I’m too close to him.

Ben is so utterly *other* in this role, so befuddled and excitable and ego-less, when in real life he’s a wisecracking ass that drops nuts with the best of them.

Jennifer is a revelation. I didn’t think I was gonna make it through her performance, there are parts of watching her in this play, with David as her adorable asshole little brother, that make it physically painful to be there for.

But the real improvements are in the smaller roles. Tarantino and Ridley have both gone from being good, serviceable actors to honest, deep and true performers. Esther has lost all of her protections, she’s utterly in service to the play and Nancy remains wonderful.

That leads me to the problem I sometimes get in to. We begin seeing the same people pulling off the same miracles, and what they’ve done is created an atmosphere where expectations are so high that they can really only disappoint. Nancy Sirianni is so good in everything that one can’t possibly expect her to be a genius in everything. And yet… she is. Jason Howard is as powerful a force as I’ve ever witnessed on stage, he’s an AWEsome presence who’s very skill needs to be *blunted* for most of his performances, and in this piece he exceeds your wildest expectations.

The costumes and props were insanely cool. The President’s suit was so gorgeous that I just about didn’t care about his performance. Rossum, the scientist who creates the Robots, was downright alarming. The LOOK of the minutiae of the show was really articulate, and that’s note-worthy because you don’t usually get color-pallets and stuff on this level. The wall decorations came across to my asshole brain as really, really good first ideas. They were beautiful and articulate wall boards that look like computer circuitry, and I was like, “Cool. Cool. So… so, this play has Robots, huh?”

The play is breath-taking. I believe it’s a masterpiece, and I believe that Mac’s best work is still ahead of him. I haven’t read a book that affected me like this since, probably, Nine Stories when I was 17. Or Jonathan Livingston Seagull when I was 15.
Or Two Towers when I was 12. I haven’t felt this strongly about a work of art (that wasn’t music) since I was a *teenager*. I hugged Mac for an inappropriately long time at the end of the play, I gave the actors a standing ovation before anyone else did. I love Mac’s plays, and, not counting things I’ve been in, this is my favorite.