Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Two Point OH
Also see Rick's recent review of Late Nite Catechism
Phineas Clark plays Elliott Leeds, a billionaire software mogul, founder and CEO of Paradigm (very much resembling Microsoft), whom we only experience through a large onstage video screen. In Two Point OH's opening scene, he's having a virtual chat from his private jet over the Pacific as he heads to a Group of 7 conference of tech leaders. In the midst of this conversation with his wife Melanie, the screen goes blank as his plane plummets into the ocean. He dies, of course, but before long he's back on screen, resurrected as a simulated reconstruction of himself developed surreptitiously for thousands of hours over the previous two years.
Run from redundant supercomputers in several secret locations, Elliott's avatar has access to all his emotions, knowledge and behavior, as well as linkage to every network, communications avenue, and security system. He quite literally knows all and sees all–even when his image is momentarily shut down, he quickly reboots and reappears. He assures Melanie that in this incarnation he'll be a better husband than ever, with knowledge of her favorite things and predilections. At first she's creeped out, but in the depths of grief, she soon warms to having conversations and a very modern relationship with Elliott "Two Point OH."
But his megalomania doesn't stop with reigniting his marriage. In fact, he's multitasking, checking into Paradigm's in-house network and making plans to continue running the company. None of this sits well with his work colleagues, Paradigm's co-founder and Elliott's college roommate Ben Robbins (played earnestly by Daniel Anderson) and brittle Catherine Powell (Samantha Joy Luhn), brought in to oversee marketing but soon to become the next CEO. News of Elliott's continued presence leaks out and is reported by a hard-nosed TV news anchor, Jeri Gold (Liz Carman), host of "The Straight Story," who keeps digging to unearth what's actually happening.
All of these perspectives–Elliott's spouse, his colleagues, the media–provide plenty of opportunity to explore AI's possibilities and perils. Without giving away more of the story, it's enough to say that a kind of resolution occurs, but the show ends with a question mark, one all the more inevitable and threatening given how AI has evolved in today's world.
Clark is excellent as the shifty, self-assured Leeds who, despite his brilliance, is only thinking about how to dominate and manipulate others. Clark never appears onstage until the curtain call, transmitting from a backstage area so he can interact virtually with the other actors. His presence and personality must be dictated entirely by facial expressions. He has been well coached by director Steve Phelan to do this, with smarmy grins and forced earnestness, perhaps suggesting how AI would portray the substance of his spoken words. Clark is often peering in the right direction to converse with the onstage actors, adding to Elliott's seeming omniscience.
Anderson gives Ben a plain-spoken presence, doubting the veracity of his onetime friend and colleague and clearly pining for Melanie. Carman does a good job as Jeri, the steely news host (interestingly, a male role in Jackson's script), supported by sensational screen shots and dramatic music buttons, a la Fox News. When her interview with Luhn as Catherine goes off-track as Elliott hacks into the TV feed, she responds with confused frustration. But Luhn's emotive performance in a following drunk scene as an overwrought CEO felt overdone.
Mention needs to be made about the role of Melanie. Due to a last-minute COVID-19 infection, Zoë Peterson stepped into the role with just three days of rehearsal. She has done a commendable job of learning the role–which includes much interaction with Elliott on screen–but it was clear that she did not have much time to fill out the character. Oddly, she was casually costumed in ways that failed to suggest a billionaire's wife: In one scene she seemed to be wearing hospital scrubs. Peterson clearly grasped Melanie's emotional rollercoaster, but as the person most complexly impacted by Elliott's new state of existence, it was apparent that the role had more potential. The actress initially cast in the role is slated to return for the next two weekends of performance.
It's great to have a small company like Falcon taking on a show like this, especially one with the technical demands of this script. Jake Schaub handles the sound and excellent video execution. This is a fine piece of theatre exploring a contemporary topic in a deeply personal way. It raises more questions than it answers, but that's what good theater often does.
Two Point OH, runs through December 2, 2023, at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth Street, Newport KY. For tickets and information, please visit falcontheatre.net.