"Build," the new techno-spirited play by Michael Golamco, recently had its world premier at the Geffen Playhouse. "Build" is staged in the smaller, more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater which makes the production feel as if you’re watching it in your own living room, or in the case of the computer-themed subject matter-watching the actors move around stage on a live video feed to your laptop.
The story focuses on Kip and Will, two childhood buddies that have become legends in the world of video games. The success of their last game has given them fame, incredible wealth, and the added pressure of creating a follow-up game. But you’d never know they’re new Silicon Valley billionaires because of the play’s setting, a rundown 1950s ranch house in Palo Alto.
It’s the childhood home of Kip and it’s now where he’s been hiding as a recluse since the death of his wife a few years ago. Kip is dressed throughout the play in a bathrobe and it seems the only thing he ever eats is pizza because as Will states in the play, "It’s the only thing a delivery person can slip underneath the door..."
Will, on the other hand, lives the corporate dream after he sold their small tech company to a big industry conglomerate. Will’s dressed in a stylish suit and necktie throughout the play and proudly declares that he drives a Ferrari rather than a Lamborghini.
Will appears at the start of the play to get the finished "multi-billion dollar" video game from Skip. He’s under considerable pressure from corporate to get the finished product. Will maps out a work schedule where the two will buckle down to complete the project. One afternoon, Will discovers that Skip’s also created an additional virtual world on his computer that has nothing to do with the game. It’s a cyber plateau complete with an A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) character that resembles Allison, Kip’s deceased wife.
The A.I. appears on the stage offering additional information about Allison, but the only information she knows is what Skip has provided when programming her. The A.I. is missing chunks of real info from the marriage, which Will is quick to supply. It seems Will has a few secrets to share concerning his own relationship with Allison.
When the A.I. speaks, there’s a delightful eerie quality to her voice because of the computerized sound effects underscoring the actor’s speech. It’s almost as if the A.I. is supposed to resemble a hologram when she appears on the stage -- or is that the illusion playwright Golamco was trying to achieve? Is the A.I. real, or an illusion that can only to be seen on the computer screen?
Golamco is listed in the program as a screenwriter and playwright, but it only lists other plays he’s written: "Cowboy Versus Samurai" and "Year Zero," which was staged at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles. The structure of "Build" is paced more as if it’s a screenplay wannabe, rather than a performance piece written for live theater.
Will and Kip banter endlessly in pure computer jargon before they mention the wife’s death. In a movie, this computer info could have been displayed within a few seconds of screen time. Although all of the spoken dialogue is snappy, authentic and real, the computer talk quickly becomes a little boring.
The play runs for 85 minutes, the approximate length of a contemporary screenplay and is performed without an intermission. There’s no Act One climax, or cliff hanger that has you running back to your seat, nor does the story pull you in within the first ten pages (or minutes of film time) that a screenplay is supposed to do. Missing are the creative special effects that a movie could add to this story. Perhaps "Build" could be better served if it’s turned into a movie?
But it’s the excellent performances by the trio of actors who bring a feeling of gentle and heartfelt intimacy to the play. Will is performed handsomely by Peter Katona, who has credits with South Coast Rep, NYSF Public Theater and was Cyrano De Bergerac in the Placido Domingo starring production at the Metropolitan Opera.
Kip is performed by Thomas Sadoski, who comes to the stage with television appearances on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Ugly Betty" and HBO’s "The Newsroom." The A.I., tenderly played by Laura Heisler, is a veteran of Playwrights Horizons and Soho Rep with Broadway appearances in "Coram Boy" and "Mistakes Madeline Made."
But honorable character acting seems to take a backseat on this journey because it’s really the technology that seems to be the main character of this play. The A.I. is a programmed product created by Kip as a way to cope with his sorrow and she’s really the only one offering the info the audience needs to understand the story.
It’s also believable that Will and Skip are both intelligent and successful computer geeks who honestly have brains to create such computer wizardry. We genuinely believe the two men are childhood friends who first discovered the computer world by tinkering around with broken electronic gadgets in the family garage.
We also find ourselves rooting for them as they confront the issues from their past and try to resolve the differences that have torn this friendship apart. We also want them to finish making the new video game so they can go on and make another billion dollars.
But for those of us in the audience who’ve never picked up a Wii game remote, we’re left with a jealous feeling because we don’t have the same power to create our own flashy imaginary world as they have. When life tears our heart apart because of love and loss, we’re unable to create an A.I. who can be summoned to help repair the damage.
To us, this kind of pain is real and never truly goes away. To Will and Skip, the pain seems only to be an illusion appearing on a computer screen and can be turned on or off with the simple click of a button. "Build" shows us a new way to play the game of life.