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Theatre in Review: Smart (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Kea Trevett, Francesca Fernandez. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Smart was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of its program to encourage plays with scientific subjects. In this case, the investment yields a dubious plot device designed to link a pair of wandering plot strands; whether this advances the cause of science is difficult to say. For the longest time, Mary Elizabeth Hamilton's play focuses on Elaine, a 35-ish real estate agent whose life is quietly unraveling. She lives in Brooklyn with her mother, Ruth, who, after a couple of strokes, is slipping into dementia. Because Ruth doesn't easily tolerate home health-care aides, Elaine struggles to do it all, keeping her mother fed, medicated, and clean while working full-time.

It's an uphill battle: Ruth stashes her oatmeal breakfasts under the cushions of the ratty old couch she refuses to throw out, she prowls her apartment looking for "stolen" objects that she can't name, and she takes part with her husband (Elaine's father), who has been dead for years. Trying to impose some order on this incipient chaos, Elaine puts her faith in "Jenny," an Alexa-like device that serves as a virtual babysitter, turning the lights on and off, ordering groceries, calling up music on demand, and reminding Ruth to take her meds. Even so, pining for her ex-girlfriend and saddled with onerous responsibilities, Elaine despairs of ever again having a personal life.

Then Gabby, who has a vaguely defined job in digital technology, shows up at one of Elaine's open houses, and soon they are dating. In addition to a strong sexual connection, they have much in common, including difficult, ailing parents and frustrated dreams of being musicians. It's a big risk for Elaine: Gabby, we are told, is averse to relationships and given to pulling up stakes every year or so, but soon she is the one pushing for more commitment; too bad Elaine can't manage to quit her ex. But we've already seen Gabby, seated on a platform at stage center, hooked up to her laptop, listening in on all sorts of random conversations, including some between Elaine and Ruth. What gives?

Broken down into its constituent parts, Smart has a lot to like. Elaine's attempts at managing Ruth hover comically between affectionate bullying and pitched battles. (The communication barrier erected by Ruth's aphasia compounds the difficulty; she complains that she can't stand oatmeal with butter when she means something rather different.) Similarly, Gabby's exasperated phone chats with her father -- we only hear her side -- have the ring of truth; anyone who has had to contend with a frail, yet contentious, parent will most likely find moments of recognition. And the early scenes of Elaine and Gabby getting together are loaded with charm, thanks to playwright Hamilton's easy way with flirtatious dialogue.

But Smart is inelegantly constructed, taking forever to bring the characters together and detailing the disintegration of Elaine and Gabby's romance in dreary detail before deploying an utterly contrived twist; the characters feel cut and shaped to fit a predetermined pattern, making it hard to care about them. Also, Hamilton leaves too much unsaid or unclear; the script's introductory notes are filled with character details, including Ruth's past career as a singer and Gabby's apparent agoraphobia, that don't come across in performance.

Matt Dickson's staging is on the sluggish side, but at least he has cast the production with a fine eye. Kea Trevett brings considerable magnetism to Elaine, whose hyper competence, challenged by the deteriorating situation at home, is revealed to have a steely, resentful undertone. Francesca Fernandez's Gabby is both cagey and needy, a tough combination to make work -- but she nails it. (If Gabby's actions, involving a massive breach of professional behavior, are, ultimately, impossibly hard to explain, the fault is not Fernandez's.) Whether she is sneaking contraband candies, worrying that the cinnamon in her food is poison, and trembling with frustration over words that won't come, Christine Farrell fearlessly lays bare Ruth's ever-growing vulnerability, her recession to a near-childlike state.

The production design is reasonably solid, with reservations. Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma's set cleverly nestles Gabby's under-furnished digs inside the cluttered mess of Ruth and Elaine's place, but it is less successful when the action moves elsewhere. But Colleen Doherty's lighting design, which relies heavily on practical lamps, sometimes leaves the actors' faces in the dark for longer than is ideal. Then again, Megan E. Rutherford's costumes are cannily tailored to each character. And, because sound design is more than usually important here, Josh Samuels makes sure that "Jenny," voiced by Sherz Aletaha, amounts to the play's fourth character, while also supplying a playlist of tunes featuring Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Joan Baez, Lady Gaga, and others.

A bundle of contrivances spiked with moments of emotional truth, Smart trades on not-unreasonable fears that we trade the convenience of digital devices for an unacceptable loss of privacy. But Hamilton doesn't seriously investigate this idea, preferring to use it to shore up a banal romantic drama. The play is at its best when sticking to the messy facts of life; its speculations on artificial intelligence are, well, artificial. --David Barbour

(10 April 2023)

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