Heaven forbid the day should come when actors are replaced by electronic “actoids,” as Alan Ayckbourn wickedly fantasizes in “Comic Potential,” but even if that dreadful day arrived tomorrow, Janie Dee wouldn’t have anything to worry about. No constellation of circuitry could possibly replicate the wit, heart and humanity this newcomer to the Gotham stage brings to the role of a robot in Manhattan Theater Club’s production of the recent London hit.
In a season of dazzling female performances on and off Broadway — see Eileen Atkins, Linda Lavin, Mary-Louise Parker and Lily Tomlin, for starters — Dee’s deliriously funny and disarmingly poignant turn ranks very high indeed. She’s the sole and superlative reason to take in this scattershot comedy, among the more synthetic creations of the prolific playwright’s recent output.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the play imagines a world in which soap operas and lesser forms of TV are performed by sophisticated robots (I know what you’re thinking, but I have it on good authority that the cast of “The Bold and the Beautiful” is entirely human). In the opening scene, Dee, in nurse’s uniform, upsets the taping of a medical drama by breaking into laughter when one of her fellow actoids acts up.
There’s something special about this bundle of wires, although Dee’s remarkable impersonation of an electronic ingenue is amazingly unlifelike. Her eyes, slightly crossed, stare forward in vacant benevolence. Arms float away from the body, stiffly attentive. The voice is an exact replica of the eerie electronic sound you hear giving the time over the telephone or reading your bank balance, a bland faux female hum moving up and down the tone scale with disconcerting randomness.
Left alone with Adam Trainsmith (Alexander Chaplin, a likable pseudo-Hugh Grant), the nephew of the TV magnate who owns the production company, this fembot begins showing more signs of emotional and intellectual life — it’s as if all the plots of all the shows she’s ever been in are fermenting inside. Adam is soon enamored of this lovely blond animatronic doll, and anxious to prove her sense of humor he plans for her a starring role in the comedy he wants to direct.
Essentially, “Comic Potential” is a variation on the Cinderella story; instead of going to the ball, Jacie Triplethree gets to see what it’s like to be a real live girl. Adam is her Prince Charming, and the evil stepmom is personified by Kristine Nielsen’s grandly overripe Carla Pepperbloom, the studio director who threatens to have Jacie melted down when she starts causing trouble.
The dramatic trappings that surround Ayckbourn’s ingeniously conceived central character are, unfortunately, fairly pedestrian. The plot becomes increasingly labored once Jacie and Adam flee after a death verdict for Jacie is (implausibly) rendered by Adam’s uncle Lester. (This character, a wheelchaired curmudgeon who transmits his thoughts through a mind reader, seems a leftover gimmick Ayckbourn decided not to build a whole play around.)
But the glorious comic set pieces Ayckbourn has contrived for Jacie are more than worth the plot’s wandering, particularly when they’re handled with the effortless grace and winking charm that Dee brings to them. The manic contortions that transform Jacie’s face when she’s getting a tune-up; the garbled bits of old soap plots she keeps spewing out when called upon to explain herself; the anxious fits of electronic panic that overcome her when she’s faced with problems too complex to compute — these all provide occasions for Dee to display a comic talent of extraordinary flexibility, from the finest shadings to the most shameless shtick.
The play turns sentimental about halfway through as Ayckbourn begins exploring the idea — familiar from various prior sci-fi stories from “2001” to “Blade Runner” — of Jacie’s growing awareness of her alien nature and the pain inherent in being human. But Dee brings such honesty, directness and warmth to this potentially maudlin material that she transforms it into something superior, a touching meditation on the agony of emotion.
Director John Tillinger has surrounded his star with a largely capable cast. John Curless and Robin Mosely give particularly fine support in a variety of small roles. John Lee Beatty’s sets are nicely finished and flexible, and Jane Greenwood dresses everyone appropriately, paying particularly witty attention to Nielsen’s luxe dragon-lady attire.
Jacie, too, gets one of the evening’s biggest laughs merely by coming onstage in an unlikely item of fashion. But the actress who plays her doesn’t have to worry about accessorizing anymore. For her performance in London, Dee was decked in laurels, and she deserves to be similarly attired here.