Even before we see Kip, the set of “Build,” designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer, tells us that a brilliant person lives here. The space includes seven desktop computers, twice as many discarded soda cans, a couple of pizza boxes, which may or may not be empty, and chairs and tables buried under piles of things. A time may come when nerds and geeks formally protest how they are portrayed in popular culture – utter lack of style, and, in many cases, oblivious to debris and dirt – but until then, the stock version remains.
Golamco set himself both a difficult and noble task with “Build.” On the one hand, it seems to me an unassailable point that in an era when billions of people are entertained by social media, computer games, and other Information Age treats, the guys – the computer industry has not yet reached “the end of men” – behind this stuff are worthy of examination. On the other hand, how do you bring to life characters who spend most of their waking hours staring at screens?
The playwright’s solution is to reposition the age-old conflict of artistic freedom versus the demands of the marketplace. Will, the owner of a hugely successful company, wants new product from Kip; just like a record producer, book publisher, or head of a movie studio might apply pressure to the talent to keep the hits coming. But Kip – who is alternately depressed and engaged -- would rather design his own games than realize Will’s ideas.
Their disagreement never gets particularly heated; director Will Frears seems hesitant to have two programmers (we learn mid-way through “Build” that Will was Kip’s roommate at Stanford and heavily into computers) show anything beyond flashes of anger. Yet you can’t have a good fight without good fighters.
The play’s most entertaining scene by far has Kip explaining to Will, who is staring at a computer screen, his newly-created game. As the designer provides more and more details, Will finally catches up to the concept.
The third character in this three-person play is dubbed the A.I., for Artificial Intelligence. Her initial appearances are annoying and confusing. Speaking in a manner both condescending and perky, the A.I., whose name we don’t learn until later, seems to be telling us something about the nature of reality. Or perhaps not. I couldn’t figure it out.
Eventually, the A.I., whose face and voice at a couple of points occupy the seven computer screens, emerges from behind a door and is told by Will that she resembles an actual person; specifically, Kip’s missing wife. Introducing this detail into the plot offers the audience another possible explanation for Kip’s depression, one that could be found in plays that have nothing whatsoever to do with computer technology.
As Kip, Thomas Sadoski maintains control of a character that could easily slip into parody. Kip is weird, but never too weird. Peter Katona is perfectly acceptable as Will, the play’s one nod to normalcy. The performance of Laura Heisler, who plays the A.I., improves as her character becomes more interesting and sympathetic. Vincent Oliveri’s sound design uses beeps, beats, and rings to keep us tethered to the high tech environment.
“Build” is being performed at the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater Tuesdays through Saturdays until November 18th. Tickets may be purchased online at tickets.geffenplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at 310-208-5454. The Geffen is located at 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, 90024.