Review: You Never Know Who’s Listening to Your Private Moments in Smart

Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s technology-based drama is now running at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Christine Farrell stars as Ruth in Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s Smart, directed by Matt Dickson, at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

How would you feel if you discovered that the person you were dating had gotten to know you before you had met by listening to you speaking to your smart home device? That’s one of the questions that Mary Elizabeth Hamilton raises in her disturbing new play, Smart, now running at Ensemble Studio Theatre. These voice-activated devices have been in our homes for years now, playing our music on demand, turning our lights on and off, and ordering our groceries, yet all that time you may not have been aware that someone could be listening to you and jotting down every word you say.

That’s the job of Gabby (Francesca Fernandez), a “prompt engineer and librarian,” who transcribes whatever gets piped through a home device called a “Jenny” (voiced by Sherz Aletaha) and then adjusts Jenny’s program to optimize its performance. Gabby doesn’t have much of a life outside her job, so she logs a lot of hours listening to other people. One of them is real-estate agent Elaine (Kea Trevett), who has just broken up with her girlfriend and whose mother, Ruth (Christine Farrell), has had a stroke, suffers from aphasia, and now needs constant care. Elaine bought a Jenny hoping that this small mushroom-looking machine with a soothing voice would take some of the burden off her by keeping her mother company.


Kea Trevett plays Elaine in Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s Smart
(© Carol Rosegg)

Little does Elaine know that Gabby, whose father also had a stroke, has been listening to Elaine and has overheard some private moments between her and Ruth. By chance (or maybe not), Gabby stops in to view an apartment that Elaine is showing, and the two of them strike just enough sparks to get a strained relationship started — and unbeknownst to Elaine, Gabby keeps listening. But when Ruth suffers an accident alone in her home and Gabby calls an ambulance, she must fess up to her creepy behavior.

Admittedly, the scenario that Hamilton presents us with seems unlikely. While it is true that prompt engineers do exist (and that your commands to your smart home device are sometimes being listened to and written down), it’s highly improbable that one of them could find you, given the layers of anonymity that are baked in. Still, it’s also true that these devices can at times be listening when we think they’re not, providing some invisible prompt engineer with a juicy story to tell friends at the bar that night.

Hamilton and director Matt Dickson make this all chillingly clear while also showing us the dehumanizing effects automated technology can have, especially when we expect it to do our caring for us. Fernandez, wearing a bulky hoody (the costumes are by Megan E. Rutherford), gives a strong performance as an estranged daughter who can’t bear the thought of dealing with her own father’s illness but doesn’t mind showering attention on a parent who isn’t hers. Trevett shows us an exhausted woman willing to leave her hallucinating mother alone with a talking mushroom so that she can selfishly mourn a breakup.

Francesca Fernandez plays Gabby in Smart at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

But the play’s most memorable performance is Farrell’s. Her heartbreaking portrayal of a mother trapped in a cluttered apartment (set design by Ant Ma, with a roomful of ’70s bric-a-brac by Caitlyn Murphy), whose only lucid moment comes when she hears a certain song, brings tears to the eyes (Josh Samuels’s sound design and Colleen Doherty’s lighting make this scene especially poignant). While the Jenny device can provide Ruth with the music she loves, it can’t do the hard work of tending to her urgent physical needs.

With its unlikely premise, Smart, running a little under two hours with one 15-minute intermission, does strain credulity and, at times, patience. Hamilton’s dialogue between Gabby and Elaine often feels repetitive as they try to hash out their relationship, and the play’s brevity makes us wish the rejiggering of the set during the intermission could have somehow been eliminated to get the whole thing down to 90 minutes. But those quibbles aside, Smart does raise excellent questions, like, How much private information are you willing to give up for the sake of not having to flip a light switch? It’s definitely food for thought, and it might make you question how smart you are the next time you go home and call out to your “Jenny.”



Featured In This Story


Closed: April 23, 2023