This year’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation award-winning play in science and technology is Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s Smart being produced by co-sponsor Ensemble Studio Theatre. While the play flirts with ideas about the dangers of artificial intelligence, it contains very little science. Instead, Smart is a domestic drama about Elaine, a young Brooklynite, who must deal with her mother’s deteriorating health and her own missing love life. While Matt Dickson’s direction is fine as far as it goes it does not compensate for the gaps in the script.
Elaine who had to give up a career in music in order to take care of mother Ruth had a stroke. Working as a real estate agent, she is not able to be home all the time and her mother keeps firing her aides suspecting them of stealing. Due to Ruth additionally having a case of aphasia, Elaine has acquired a Jenny, (voiced by Sherz Aletaha) an electronic smart device (similar to Alexa or Siri) which both doubles as a companion and allows Elaine to check on Ruth from wherever she is. What she doesn’t know is that it is still in the experimental stages, and Gabby, a software programmer is listening in order to make corrections to its program. Gabby becomes fascinated by Elaine and ends up moving to Brooklyn in order to meet her.
The first act is a domestic drama in which Elaine deals with her mother’s worsening condition, problems with scheduling, food, aides, and excess furniture her mother won’t throw out. We don’t find out until the second act that her mother had previously had a stroke and six months later has another one. In the second act, Elaine and Gabby meet and are romantically attracted to each other. Ruth takes a back seat to their relationship here as does Jenny. However, when Elaine finds out about Gabby’s work she feels betrayed, though it is Gabby who has at least once saved Ruth by listening in.
While the program notes talk about the privacy issues involved with artificial intelligence, the play doesn’t really address these questions, just Elaine’s sense of betrayal. The play also leaves out a good deal of information or leaves the revelations for the second act. We don’t know that Ruth was previously a professional singer until Elaine tells Gabby in the second half of the play. Although it is stated in the script, the play never tells us that Elaine has moved into her mother’s basement in order to be nearby. Has Elaine made a living as a singer with a band? We never know for certain, nor do we know the extent of Elaine’s relationship with her former girlfriend Laura whom she keeps wanting to text throughout the play. Gabby is also very vague about her life and career other than that she likes jazz and played drums in a band at grad school. Charlie appears to be the name of both the aide Ruth thinks is stealing from her and her late husband which is rather confusing – unless, of course, she can’t keep them separate which is not made clear.
The set by Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma does not solve all the problems the story calls for. Ruth’s messy apartment with its many figurines, too many boxes, and extra furniture is established from the outset but Gabby’s minimalistic apartment which she uses as her office is wedged into it so that we do not see it as a separate entity but part of the clutter. The script speaks of two sofas in the way of each other making it is difficult to negotiate Ruth’s living room but the set has them on opposite sides of the stage so that this is not a problem. The nighttime scenes are not dark enough in Collen Doherty’s lighting design to suggest that it is dangerous to walk around in Ruth apartment. Megan E. Rutherford’s few costumes for these characters who are almost always on stage define them even though there are few changes in the course of the six months. On the other hand, Josh Samuels’ sound design for Jenny is very convincing though one has the nagging suspicion that it should sound more like Gabby than it does.
The acting is fine except that we learn so little about the characters that the performers have little to work with. Christine Farrell is very elievable as a woman who has progressive aphasia and can’t complete her sentences but we are never told what she was like before her stroke. So too Kea Trevett’s Elaine is a caring but exasperated daughter but we learn little to nothing about her life before becoming her mother’s caretaker. While Gabby is supposed to be cagey so that Elaine does not find out that she is spying on her, Francesca Fernandez is a little too secretive throughout the play. A flashback scene near the end is so poorly staged that we do not realize that it was intended to happen six months prior to the end, nor are we certain what happens in the ambiguous ending though it is possible to make some educated guesses.
Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s Smart has an interesting premise but does not carry out its goal turning quickly into a domestic drama and later a bittersweet love story. The two acts seem to be two different plays while the sketchy characters do not give the fine three actresses much to work from. Even the production values get in the way of understanding the play. Hamilton has a good ear for dialogue but needs to work on plotting and characterization in order to make this a satisfying theatrical experience.
Smart (through April 23, 2023)
Ensemble Studio Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
The EST/Sloan Project
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ESTnyc.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission