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A CurtainUp Review

Comic Potential by Elyse Sommer

Imagine a time in the not too distant future in which noone has ever heard of a fax machine and when entertainment has been dumbed down to a new level of cookie cutter mediocrity. It's a world in which shows such as television soaps are cast with conveniently docile robots or "actoids" programmed to remember the dialogue and movements from all their roles. Finally, imagine an actoid named Jacie Triplethree, a.k.a. JCF 31333, whose programming mechanism has a glitch that sparks distinctly nonprogrammed responses, which in turn captures the heart and imagination of a young would-be comedy writer.

Does this futuristic boy meets girl show biz romance have comic potential?

You bet. The idea of robots who have minds of their own has been successfully tested in books, movies and on TV. What's more, the aptly named Comic Potential was written by Alan Ayckbourn, whose more than fifty plays attest to his skill with inspired silliness that manages to leave you laughing as well as with a few things to think about. Most importantly, as portrayed by Janie Dee, Jacie, the "actoid" heroine, is guaranteed to steal your heart as well as that of Adam Trainsmith (Alexander Chaplin), her two thousand something Prince Charming. Manhattan Theatre Club is fortunate to have Ms. Dee who created the role in England, star in this American premiere. She's sure to add some American awards to those she collected in London

Even though Comic Potential isn't on a par with Communicating Doors (see link below), Ayckbourn's last play on a New York stage, Ms. Dee's performance alone is worth the price of admission. It is a true master class in physically and verbally comic acting, without a misplaced cue. Her virtuosity must be seen and heard to be believed, especially her dancing scene and robotic variation on Buster Keaton's pie-in-the-face slapstick.

Fortunately, Dee is on stage practically all the time -- from the opening scene to the triumphant finale of her adventures as a robot with her foot and heart in the human world. Without saying a word, she captures our immediate attention as the nurse in a soap called Hospital Hearts is being taped with much bickering between Chandler Tate (Peter Michael Goetz), a has-been star director, and his assistants in the control room, Trudy Floote ( Mercedes Herrero) and Prim Spring (Kellie Overbey).

While this is very much Ms. Dee's show, she is strongly supported by the nine other actors. Alexander Chaplin is relaxed and charming as the young writer who wants to bring life to television entertainment as well as to Jacie. Peter Michael Goetz does well by the once great director whose dissolute habits have served to move him to the bottom of the show biz ladder of success. And Kristine Nielsen is a grand meanie as the bureaucratic Carla Pepperbloom who wants to have Jacie melted down. The rest of the cast has a wonderful time in double and triple roles.

John Tillinger's crisp direction and the production's handsome look add to the fun. John Lee Beatty's turntable set is ingeniously designed. However, the second act's switches from the TV studio to various parts of an elegant hotel as well as a less posh and less reputable establishment are excessively elaborate. Since the first and better act, holds up with just the studio set, it's almost as if all these scene shifts are there to keep us from noticing that even the remarkable Ms. Dee can't keep the plot from failing to fully live up to its comic potential.

House and Garden
Communicating Doors
Taking Steps
Absent Friends
By Jeeves
Woman In Mind

Comic Potential
By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by John Tillinger
Cast (in alphabetical order): Alexander Chaplin, John Curless, Janie Dee, MacIntyre Dixon, Carson Elrod, Peter Michael Goetz, Meredes Herero, Robin Moseley, Kristine Nielsen, Kellie Overbey,
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Sound Design: Bruce Ellman
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, West 55th Street (6th /7th Aves) 581-1212
10/24/2000-12/31/2000; opened

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/18 performance

The Broadway Theatre Archive

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