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Comic Potential, at MTC Stage I

Alan Ayckbourn's umpteenth comedy (not far short of his sixtieth, and making its American debut, as usual, at the Manhattan Theatre Club in a production directed by John Tillinger)  addresses the problem of robot romance - a venerable one, considering 'Pinocchio' as an antecedent. What happens when a man-made creature confronts the emotions that man makes creatures to bypass? Mr Ayckbourn doesn't pontificate; his gift is for brilliantly illuminating bits of behavior. Unfortunately, the setting that he has chosen is in desperate need of the opposite of illumination. 

'Comic Potential' operates in two gears. The faster and more exciting one features the English actress, Janie Dee (who created the role in London), as Jacie Triplethree (JC333), an 'actoid,' or soap opera operative. Jacie is currently playing the bit part of a nurse, but from her varied career she has saved swaths of  dialogue belonging to many other roles, which, owing to a fault in her wiring, she spouts from time to time, to hilarious effect, as occasions arise - sometimes with accompanying soundtrack. The richness of 'Comic Potential' flows almost entirely from Mr Ayckbourn's expert handling of the notion that Jacie's spark of humanity springs from a short circuit. As a defective machine, she is liable to be 'melted down,' a gruesome phrase for the simple erasure of her memory. It is from this fate that the play tries to save her. 

In the other gear, which the play is stuck in most of the time, the action plods along through inordinately familiar satires of television and the executives who run it. With the exception of a star-struck young man with creative ambitions (and connections), the human beings in 'Comic Potential' are as cynical, dissolute, and grasping - sometimes all three - as they would be if a write-oid had stitched together their lines from sitcoms old and new. I felt particularly sorry for the capable Kristine Nielsen, who concocted a blend of Cruella de Vil, Miss Piggy, and Edina Monsoon, as an approach to the character of Carla Pepperbloom, Bitch Producer, doing everything she could to make up for the complete absence of fresh material. It's hard to tell if Carla reflects a particularly nasty experience of Mr Ayckbourn's in TV-land, or if the playwright acted on rumors. Having a pie pressed into her face at the close of the first act might be punishment enough if this character did not persist into the second. 

The delights of 'Comic Potential' lie almost entirely in Ms Dee's virtuoso clockwork, and in her beguiling voice, a husky instrument not unlike Tammy Grimes' or Geraldine McEwan's. Apart from a few measures of humor squeezed from the autopiloting of robots through the robotics of soap opera - at the TV director's insistence, a programmer swells a worried mother's wailing, as if the actress were an organ pipe - the parts of 'Comic Potential' that don't focus on Ms Dee's impressive talents are not very amusing. Alexander Chaplin, as the young man who's determined to save Jacie's memory, has just one fine moment, when he teaches Jacie to read using the only book available, a hotel-room Bible. Sounding out the opening words of Genesis, he and Ms Dee work all the magic inherent in Mr Ayckbourn's bright idea. 

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