Calling a play Comic Potential is asking for trouble. You've got to live up to the title's implications. If you don't, it's bound to be noticed. With his skatey-eighth comedy, prolific Alan Ayckbourn does and doesn't deliver the goods; in this amiable shambles of a light-hearted romance he fulfills some of the potential but far from all of it.
As usual with Ayckbourn, there's a gimmick. This time, it's that the play is set well into our new century and begins on the set of a soap opera where the performers are robots--"actoids," as they're known. The main actoid is a blonde mechanical whose name (or, more precisely, serial number) is JCF31333. She becomes, however, just plain Jacie Triplethree to on-set visitor Adam Trainsmith, an aspiring writer and the wide-eyed nephew of the station's owner..
Adam has barely entered the futuristic studio, which is commanded by a cranky ex- feature film director, before he realizes that Jacie's artificial intelligence makes her greatly appealing. She's definitely more seductive in the context of these proceedings than the other women on hand, two of whom make up an amiable lesbian couple and one of whom is a predatory supervisor in sharp-lapelled suits and a red wig so lacquered it looks breakable.
In no time at all, Adam finds himself wooing and winning Jacie, going so far as to create a program in which she's to star. When Jacie and a couple of the other actoids audition the series for Adam's uncle, Lester Trainsmith--a man so sour and tight-lipped he hires a man to speak for him--the old reprobate declares the project is a go. But he also rules that the by-now-voluble Jacie is unstable and needs to be melted down. This decree sends the enamored pair on a surreptitious toot around the secondary-market English town in which the action takes place.
Comic Potential is, of course, a futurized Pygmalion, with a sharp-tongued Eliza and a puppyish Henry Higgins. What it has going for it chiefly are the fast-talking and articulate characters, particularly Adam and Jacie, who are written with great charm. They're so appealing that, even when the play goes careening off-track in the second half, their love story with its sitcomplications remains compelling. And as much as Ayckbourn's dialogue is cute and involving, more droll than raucous, the acting is even more so.
Janie Dee, whose name sounds almost as manufactured as the character she plays, gives the kind of performance that makes audiences and critics alike toss reservations into the trash bin. Imported from England, where she played Jacie under the author's direction and won every acting award in sight, she's an actress with uncommonly winning physical and vocal skills. A lively blend of Betty Hutton, Tammy Grimes, and Geraldine McEwan, Dee has no trouble handling the subtleties of Jacie's transition from a controlled appliance full of jerky gestures to a woman with a multi-faceted mind and roiling emotions of her own. The actress has a great time with Jacie's trip-hammer lines, many of which are supposed to be speeches she's previously rattled off on television assignments. And she's never more effective than when, at the end of the first act, she dances an angular jitterbug-twist with the startled and increasing delighted Adam.
Alexander Chaplin, whom television audiences will recognize from his days on Spin City, is the perfect partner for Dee. His footwork is every bit as cunning in the impromptu dance routine, through which he remains wide-eyed and smiling at the miracle taking place before him. Chaplin is a good-looking young fellow, the sort of unassuming leading man that Jimmy Stewart was and Tom Hanks still is; he could easily join their ranks if parts as showy as this one keep coming his way. Also shining under John Tillinger's tutelage and on John Lee Beatty's flashing, revolving set are Peter Michael Goetz as fulminating television shot-caller Chandler Tate, Christine Nielsen as the martinetish Carla Pepperbloom, and Carson Elrod as the officious interpreter Marmion. Most of the actors--John Curless, MacIntyre Dixon, Mercedes Herrero, Robin Moseley, and Kellie Overbey are the adroit others--play multiple roles and strike no false notes in any of them. They're an interesting mix, too, because some of them use English accents (Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach) and some don't. (Maybe so many Americans are now working in England that their presence doesn't need explanation.)
Likeable as the collaborative team makes Comic Potential, the problems with the play only start with that rambling second-act chase, when Jacie and Adam make trouble at two hotels. The first hotel is a fancy spot where, in one tamely bawdy scene, Adam has to get under a table to empty Jacie's food-and-drink trap. The second hotel is a hooker's haven in which it becomes necessary for Jacie to beat up the resident pimp. Unfortunately, too much of Adam's and Jacie's nerve-wracking flight descends to the realm of sketch humor. A good deal of it, moreover, features some amusing but almost totally unnecessary, minor figures. Well, they're there to fill the minutes it takes the main characters to change clothes and the rotating set to be dressed and redressed.
On the purely structural level, there's a gaping hole in the play's major conflict: the fear that Janie will be melted down. The harsh sentence Uncle Trainsmith serves Jacie isn't logical; presumably, he's given the green light to Adam's project because of Jacie's expertise, not in spite of it. It feels as if Ayckbourn dreamed up the tinny plot turn because he needed something to bring the first act to a close and hoped he could rush this one past audiences without their noticing how unmotivated it is.
There are other, even more irritating flaws. A feminist angle has been built snugly but superficially into Comic Potential: The stunted Jacie comes into her own, both mentally and physically. (She's yet another in a lengthening list of contemporary heroines who get their way by resorting masterfully to the martial arts.) Indeed, the language Ayckbourn uses to describe Jacie as she increasingly asserts herself turns her into a metaphor for anyone in today's world who endures second-class citizen treatment. Talk of Jacie's being freed from servitude and deserving equal treatment in society gives the impression that the playwright is delivering a dated argument on American civil liberties.
But as much as Ayckbourn appears to be championing women, he's actually doing quite the reverse. There's a point in the play where Jacie tells Adam that she's not his ideal mate. She's 19, she says--she'll always be 19, and won't change in any other fashion, either. Adam says that's jake with him. In other words, he claims that a 19-year-old blonde with limited mental and anatomical fittings is his ideal woman. Not too consciousness-raised, is he?
Adam's declaration flies in the face of the achievements women have made in their struggle for parity with men. And you'd think this repudiation would bother audiences, especially the women in them. But no. The ticket-buyers beam at the stage as Comic Potential continues merrily to unfold and the lovers draw closer and closer together. That unquestioned enjoyment is a testament to the dollops of entertainment value that Dee, Chaplin, Ayckbourn, and Tillinger spoon into this nutrition-free dessert..