By Dominick DeGaetano; Directed by Taylor Edelle Stuart
Part of the 2018 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.20.18
FringeHUB, 685 Washington Street
by Ran Xia on 10.18.18
Finn Kilgore in Turing Test. Photo by Taylor Edelle Stuart.
BOTTOM LINE: Dominick DeGaetano's complex yet intimate sci-fi play asks some tough questions, including "what does it mean to be human?"
David McKenna (Richard Busser), poet and soon-to-be dad, gets summoned to participate in a top-secret research study funded by some shadowy government agency. Despite his better judgment, he signs the papers and does what he’s told in order to clear his debts. The study itself seems simple enough: David will chat with someone named Adam (Finn Kilgore), a voice at the invisible end of a microphone. Something tells him that that the head honcho of the whole shebang, Dr. Elizabeth Rossum (Julia Hays), is simply hiding everything about this peculiar study. So amidst all the redacted information and questions answered by “that’s classified,” David ends up on the blind side of a metaphorical two-way mirror. It might’ve been a brief affair, but the study takes an unexpected turn when Adam, who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of David’s work, steps out of the backroom to ask for a “master class” with the poet.
Though our cynical wordsmith is kept in the dark, the play doesn’t hide the fact that Adam is really an AI created by Dr. Rossum. The eager pupil and the reluctant master form an unlikely bond, connected by a shared loneliness, and they engage in a series of increasingly cerebral dialogues on what it means to be human, by way of figuring out what it takes to be a poet. It soon becomes clear that the test subject isn’t David after all, as you witness Adam pass the Turing Test with flying colors over and over.
The titular test—evaluating artificial intelligence to see whether it’s indistinguishable from a human—has become increasingly familiar to many sci-fi fans in recent years. Robots and AI are common enough in TV and film—Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Black Mirror, to name a few. Yet aside from Madeleine George’s exceptional The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, I cannot think of many instances in the theatre where an AI story is told with nuance and complexity—something DeGaetano does successfully.
Publicized as "Dead Poet Society meets Westworld," the narrative scale of Turing Test is really more intimate. DeGaetano clearly knows his sci-fi references: Dr. Rossum's name is in reference to Karel Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which first introduced the word “robot” to the English language. But in addition to its delicate exploration of the blurry line between human and machine, à la Her and Ex Machina, Turning Test also tackles the relationship between creator and creation. There are the obvious biblical allusions, from Adam’s name being a bit on the nose (fortunately the play is self aware of this), to the first poetry lesson being all about apples. There is also an undercurrent of both Frankenstein and Paradise Lost.
One of the strengths of Turing Test is how its characters are developed and portrayed. Poet David is cantankerous yet charming; Busser brings such authenticity to a somewhat passive character that you cannot help but sympathize with him. And then there’s Adam, across the table and in the epicenter of everything, processing the world around him at fiber optic speed with a childlike wonder, which Kilgore portrays with restrained elegance, creating a captivating and nuanced presence out of a being that’s dispassionate by nature, yet nevertheless vulnerable. My favorite scene might be the one where David and Adam attempt to peel layers of secrets off of each other, exchanging questions like daggers and answers like cloaks; it’s a potent chess game with delicious dialogue.
My main critique is that halfway through, the play suddenly shifts from a tender exploration of poetry as a cure against loneliness to a thriller that never needed to be one. Turing Test is also a case where the projections, by director Taylor Edelle Stuart, do more to distract than to help propel the story forward. And while I understand the reason for them, especially in creating a certain ominous moment, they sometimes feel like a mistake (something perhaps partly due to the Fringe's limited tech capabilities).
“Why did you become a scientist?” Adam asks Dr. Rossum in the end. “To find the questions,” she says. Perhaps that’s just the thing—the simplest thing that makes us human. Turing Test doesn’t answer all the tough questions it attempts to grapple with, nor should it have to. I applaud the courage of the play in simply finding those questions, and pointing out the essence of poetry along the way. Because it’s never just about intelligence: the telltale of humanity is really our ability to justify, even romanticize, our ignorance, and create meaning out of nonsense. Ultimately, Turning Test isn’t about the science, or even the ethics, of artificial intelligence, but rather about humanity itself. The most satisfying and poignant moments are when you forget that the play has any sci-fi elements at all. I suppose in this way, Turning Test is passing its own Turing Test, with flying colors.
(Turing Test plays at FringeHUB, 685 Washington Street at Charles Street, through October 20, 2018. Meet at the DARK BLUE FringeNYC flag. The running time is 1 hour 40 minutes. Performances are Sat 10/13 at 7, Sun 10/14 at 2:45, Mon 10/15 at 9:15, Thu 10/18 at 4:30, and Sat 10/20 at 5. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $22 (plus $3.69 ticketing fee), $16 (plus $3.51) for seniors, and are ONLY available online at fringenyc.org. For more information visit turingtestfringe.com.)
Turing Test is by Dominick DeGaetano. Directed by Taylor Edelle Stuart. Lighting Design by Ted Charles Brown. Sound Design by Dominick DeGaetano. Projection Design by Taylor Edelle Stuart. Fight Direction is by Tim Dowd.
The cast is Rick Busser, Julie Hays, Finn Kilgore, and Elizabeth Chappel.