nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
October 27, 2006
Helix 999 is being billed as "a new sci-fi play by Kenneth Nowell", and while that may strictly be true, it's very clearly an adaptation/homage to the work of Phillip K. Dick. Think Bladerunner meets The Maltese Falcon and you have a good idea of what's going on in this rip-roaringly entertaining play at the Looking Glass Theatre.
The mood is set as you enter the theatre, as indie songs play and smoke wafts across the stage. After a long set of pre-show music during which the lights go up and down haphazardly, the show begins with Rick (Mark Comer, channeling Humphrey Bogart as best he can) asleep, closely watched by Amanda (Julia E.C. Jones). She threatens him with a handgun, but he is felled instead by a weak heart, and we are plunged into Rick's memory, in a story of guilt and betrayal. A few clever touches establish his character, e.g., we see him taking his heart medication with swigs from a whiskey flask.
Rick works for a shadowy corporation, Genome INC, disposing of products that have malfunctioned. For Genome INC, a malfunctioning product means a specially designed cloned human who has been released into society illegally as a kind of test run, and disposing of it means murdering it in such a way that the police won't look too close. Our first glimpse of him at work comes as he accompanies Smith (the appealing Jennifer Boehm) on her first assignment to eliminate a genetically produced person. It's Amanda, but not the Amanda that will later haunt Rick's dreams, merely another version of her. Smith nearly botches the assassination, but Rick's experience in such matters bails her out. He knows the problems such models typically have, and their response times. You can tell one has gone bad, he says, by looking into their eyes.
Later, Rick is given an assignment by Genome INC CEO Walker (Elizabeth Yocam) to eliminate a particularly troublesome clone (who turns out to be Amanda), one who seems to be aware that she is not just an ordinary human. Rick, professing disgust at the idea of getting close to a genetically grown human, accepts his assignment with trepidation, but soon finds himself getting closer to Amanda than he ever expected. As the two become intertwined, we follow them into a web of deception as Rick tries to deal with the discrepancy between Amanda's very human actions and Genome INC's claim that she is nothing but a faulty piece of hardware. There is a parallel story of Smith's pursuit of a malfunctioning, Heidigger-quoting sewer worker (Nic Heppe) that provides the play's most shocking moment.
Sounds an awful lot like Bladerunner, doesn't it? It certainly does, and I think Looking Glass would do well to acknowledge this debt a little more; a note reading "inspired by the work of Phillip K. Dick" would go a long way towards eliminating the type of raised eyebrows my friend and I exchanged and which this fine production does not deserve. To be fair, the debt to Dick is acknowledged in the press release, but most audience members won't see this.
Nowell's crackling script seamlessly injects the witty patter of crime noir into sci-fi, and keeps the plot zipping along, with the exception of one overly long foray into Canada. He's injected a couple of sly references to our current political climate into the script (military hardware is referred to as having been used against the "Iraqi Empire"; the Empire State Building has been renamed the "Giuliani Memorial") that draw chuckles from the audience. There are some deeper issues about what makes a human a human at work here in the script, but no new ground is broken; the plot and style are what make this piece interesting.
Director Candace O'Neil Cihoki skillfully manages to pack an enormous amount of story into a compact one hour and 20 minutes, and has clearly drilled the "film noir" style into all of her actors. This, I suppose, was my main complaint with the production, that the actors seemed to be acting the style rather than acting the characters. The performances didn't feel emotionally committed, and I rarely believed anyone was actually upset or in danger. The mechanics of the plot and the excellent production design kept my interest, and the actors (particularly Jones) occasionally found moments where they could break through their strict noir types. Cihoki deals with gun and knife violence in a fascinating way, by filling the stage with red light to symbolize blood, which is surprisingly effective, and caused my friend and I to nearly jump out of our seats when combined with the loud gun sound effects.
I have to single out Jane Parrot's fine set design, which does a lot with a little, including a very effective reveal of a bar. Ryan Metzler's lights are so low they took a lot of getting used to, but they stopped bothering me halfway through.
All in all, this is an exceptionally interesting production, and I look forward to catching more of both Nowell and Cihoki's work.