Theater Review: Fifth Wall’s “Uncanny Valley” Asks What It Means to Be Human By Playing God

For seven seasons, Data the android captivated fans of the television show “Star Trek: the Next Generation.” In witnessing his quest to become more like his shipmates, Data provided an outlet through which the show’s writers could explore questions of existence and what it means to be human.

It’s with similar goals in mind that 5th Wall Theatre offers Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley.” Set in the not-so-distant future, the play follows the construction and instruction of Julian, a nonbiological human.

When we first encounter Julian (Alexander Sapp), he’s just an inquisitive head and torso who’s still learning his human mannerisms from neuroscientist Claire (Jacqueline Jones). The world is still bright and shiny to Julian, who approaches new concepts like an overarticulate child. As the play progresses, Julian acquires limbs, knowledge, and perhaps a too-accurate understanding of the flaws that make us human.

But Julian’s creation is no purely scientific endeavor. He’s intended to serve at the command of another Julian, this one human and dying of cancer. The original Julian is a corporate giant who’s using his fortune to stave off mortality. The robotic Julian is intended to look like a younger version of the real one and assume his identity. The android is meant to serve as a vessel into which the other is downloaded.

Many of the questions posed by Gibbons’ script are ones men and women have contemplated since they’ve been upright: What is it that makes us human? What is our purpose in being here? Is immortality possible, and what are its ramifications?

In a performance reminiscent of Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus,” Sapp gives a calculated and nuanced portrayal of the quickly humanizing android. With each new scene, he subtly adds layers to his character, his voice and gestures becoming more lifelike over time. By the show’s final scene, Julian has become indistinguishable from other humans, and Sapp pulls together his character’s learned quirks to create an entitled, Ted Turner-like person.

As Claire, Jones has toned down her natural sweetness to play a no-nonsense scientist with some personal troubles lurking beneath the surface. As much as her character tries to keep up a professional facade, her fractured relationship with her husband and daughter becomes a weapon with which Julian attempts to manipulate her. As might be expected, the audience is more interested in Julian’s fate than Claire’s, just as we’re more curious about Pinocchio than we are Geppetto.

The play has some interesting ruminations on humanity, but much of its content has been walked over by other stories involving artificial intelligence. “Ex Machina,” “Prometheus” and “Her” are a few recent examples. Gibbons’ script also features the kinds of phrases that even the most intelligent among us wouldn’t use when discussing our raw emotions.

While thoughtful, Morrie Piersol’s direction occasionally drags, heightened by only two actors and no intermission. Michael Todd’s appropriate office building scenic design isn’t far removed from our own time, and Todd A. Schall-Vess and Smoke and Mirrors’ mirror effect — to make Sapp appear legless — works well enough.

As with many of these tales, it’s the scientist who must pay a personal price for attempting to play God. Perhaps because Claire’s effort was rooted more in the pursuit of knowledge than ego, she is spared too harsh a punishment. S

The 5th Wall production of “Uncanny Valley” plays through Oct. 3 at HatTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Drive.


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