Michael Golamco’s “Build” is alarmed by, among other things, the Internet generation’s tendency toward soulless solitude, and the programmer’s potential for virtually Godlike creation. Bringing such familiar themes to the stage ought to put a more human face on issues we’ve all seen hashed over in books and magazines. Yet ironically, as helmed by Will Frears, “Build” feels as disoriented from everyday human behavior as the repressed, cooped-up gamers it’s examining. You keep wishing someone would hack into the script and implant some guts into its coding.
Golamco’s antagonists – millionaire game designers charged with debugging their eagerly awaited sequel “Maelstrom 2” so it can be rushed to market – might be Sam Shepard’s “True West” brothers transplanted to Silicon Valley. The dirty, dangerous one (Thomas Sadoski’s Kip) is a pill-popping, pajama-clad recluse holed up in a ratty flat appallingly decorated, by Sibyl Wickersheimer, in computer monitors and old pizza boxes. The straitlaced one (Peter Katona’s Will) stayed with the mogul who bought the boys out, and now rattles around a mansion in the hills with celebrity guests and a dissatisfied trophy wife.
The thesps give it their all. Katona suggests untapped depth beneath his steely control, while manic, monotoned Sadoski lurches around the filthy set twisted and misshapen like Lon Chaney on speed. If they’re not for a moment convincing as lifelong pals and co-workers, it’s partly because the text keeps having them ladle out exposition. (Will accuses Kip of violating Programming 101’s rule not to let code go unlabeled. A precept of Playwrighting 101 might be, Don’t have characters tell each other things they surely already know.)
One thing Will doesn’t know, but comes to learn, is that Kip hasn’t been idle during his year-long sabbatical from the world: The genius has created a fully feeling and reasoning computer duplicate of dead wife Allison, played on-screen and, as it were, in the flesh by Laura Heisler.
She’s billed as The A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), though you’d think anyone interested in seeing “Build” either would be well aware of what A.I. stands for, or might enjoy having the third character’s identity come as a surprise. Anyway, Heisler’s appearances are heightened by Daniel Ionazzi’s otherworldly lighting and the tinkling music Vincent Olivieri contrives to accompany her lines.
Yet the play remains tame and unmoving, the characters’ basic appetites unattended to. There’s no hint of sexuality anywhere to be found on the Geffen stage, with Kip and A.I. spending most of their time playing word games and sending cryptic messages to each other. (“Message to: You. From: Me.”) Will apparently had a thing for Allison back in the day as well, but one couldn’t swear to it given his granite jaw and endless typing whenever she pops by. Everyone’s cyberspace “visits” are moody rather than terrifying.
We keep hearing about how much is riding on “Maelstrom 2” emotionally and financially. Yet as Will and Kip bicker and parry, make threats and back off, the desperation to make something happen stays in the words only. The stakes simply don’t bring alive their confrontations, which too often devolve into uninvolving technospeak and forced reminiscence.
At one point Will accuses Kip of overengineering his product. The pat “Build” leaves Golamco vulnerable to the same charge, right down to the last two lines prior to the epilogue, which lay out his message tied up in a bow.