Directed by Kelly Johnston
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited
“The Human Brain is such a fu** up” says Craig, praising the elegance of a computer and lamenting his learning-disabled daughter. It’s a sad, if vexingly relevant, notion that fits right at home in “The Assistant, “written by Ashley Minihan. (The Sunrise Side, Remission) A show about the future, family, and faulty-wiring, her play is a beautifully delicate balance of intellect, anxiety, and melancholic charm.
The show centers on a family that owns the first ever Empathetic Assistance robot. The machine (named Steven) was created for Julie, an emotionally challenged teenager, by her genius father, Craig. Frustrated with his failures and unwilling (or perhaps unable) to bond with Julie, Craig abandoned his family. This derailment left his exhausted wife Lynn as Julie’s sole provider. When Craig returns to reclaim Steve to jumpstart his waning career, Lynn and Julie rally to defend the synthetic being they’ve grown to love.
The breath, psychosis, and unease of the characters is brought vividly to life by director Kelly Johnston. Johnston’s sophisticated guidance imbues ‘The Assistant’ with the fierceness and awkward comedy it needs to soar. Julie’s severe anxiety issues coupled with Lynn’s mounting frustration erupts with visceral intensity. The comedy is equally as satisfying, most notably the scenes involving Dave, Lynn’s lovesick co-worker. Josh Evans brings a delightfully painful awkwardness to the stage as Dave; he’s a perfect flipside to Shana Wiersum’s frantic, end-of-her-rope Lynn, who just wants a little peace and quiet.
The robot, played with flawless diligence by Jamie Geiger, is eons away from the sexy metallic sociopath seen so often on stage and screen. Steven is exactly what one would expect from an android prototype: He’s imperceptive, buggy, and (as Dave cleverly points out) is more akin to a grandparent with dementia than anything else. Steven’s goal in life is to help Julie (portrayed with violent distress by Gina Trebiani) and along the way, his programming allows him to make certain connections, leading to a genuine care for her. Is Steven sentient? Probably, but “The Assistant” is not about the humanity of robots. Instead, the play brings to light just how machine-like the human brain can actually be. The neuroses of the characters, especially Julie, are impeccably comparable to faulty computer programming; the humans descend to the machine’s level, rather than the machine ‘rising’ to theirs.
It’s a tragicomically blunt lesson, but in the end, hope prevails. As Steven surmounts his hard-wiring to love Julie (instead of just asking her how she’s feeling) there’s the faint, unquenchable optimism that we can do the same. Despite our massive fears to the contrary, the whole, suggest Minihan, might still be more than the sum of its parts.