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Open: 02/12/09- Close: 03/07/09 Universal Robots
Reviewed for By: Byrne Harrison

Living in a time and place where so much of the popular entertainment is geared toward the lowest common denominator, it is an absolute joy to discover a writer who is creating epic and challenging works of art. Mac Rogers has done exactly that with his surprising Universal Robots, currently being performed at Manhattan Theatre Source.

Using the life of Karel Capek and his 1921 play R.U.R. as a jumping off points, Rogers imagines an alternate history of mankind, beginning just after The Great War. In the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia, playwright Karel Capek (David Ian Lee) and his sister, Jo (Jennifer Gordon Thomas), have just completed a play called "The Drudges," a piece of science fiction in which a pill allows the creation of a subclass of humans with no creativity or drive, who exists solely to support a creative class of artists and thinkers. As tends to happen when mankind tries to create utopia, things go tragically awry.

Toasting the success of their play, the siblings are met by Helena (Esther Barlow), the daughter of a prominent scientist, Rossum (Nancy Sirianni). Rossum's invention of an automaton, human in form, but without self-awareness or thought, promises to make the dream of "The Drudges" come true - the ability of mankind to free itself from the drudgery of work - without the nightmarish creation of a race of sub-humans. These automatons, later called Robots, will simply be tools, like a hammer or a car, capable of doing the work no one wants to do, freeing humanity for loftier pursuits.

Funny how that never seems to work out exactly as expected.

Rossum's robots prove to be remarkably adaptable, and learn at a rate far beyond their creators. Soon they are nearly indistinguishable from humans, even to the point of being able to feel pain. When Hilter threatens the fledgling Republic with a force the Czechoslovakians can never hope to match, the Americans suggest the unthinkable - override the prime directive that keeps the robots from being able to hurt humans. Their first taste of bloodshed and death leads the robots, and of course the humans, down an inevitable path. Rogers surprises, however, with a sublime ending that makes the audience question what it means to be human.

An outstanding performance is given by Jennifer Gordon Thomas.  Rogers has created an amazing character in Jo, and Thomas exceptionally realizes her.  Jason Howard does an amazing job as Radosh, the waiter Jo falls in love with, and Radius, the first robot.  David Ian Lee is excellent as the idealistic Capek and Nancy Sirianni gives a wonderful performance as the mad scientist Rossum. While not all of the cast performs on the same level, the overall production is strong.

Director Rosemary Andress makes good use of the tiny playing space at Manhattan Theatre Source. The intimacy of the space helps pull the audience into the story, which is part of both Andress' and Rogers' intent, and makes for a much more satisfying conclusion to the play.

Universal Robots is one of the strongest, most exciting plays I've seen in years. This one is not to be missed.

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Manhattan Theatre Source : 177 MacDougal Street