Keats wrote that the poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; he or she inhabits many lives but is without native identity. To build a play around a literary artist is risky. A successful writer may be bland, productive and unconflicted; a failed writer may simply be irritating. Kevin Michael Reed’s production of Kashyap Raja’s Version 2.0, unfortunately, features a playwright of the latter variety. The show’s saving grace is that the author’s creation proves more interesting than he.
The piece opens with playwright Kashyap Raja (Tim Atkinson) meeting his new robot companion. Kash, a friendless author of six highly unsuccessful plays, has been selected for an experiment. He receives a robot, to be fashioned and programmed as he wishes, in exchange for training the machine and featuring it in a play. He designs the robot to resemble Karen (Tracey Pickup), the woman he has loved since childhood who rejected his advances. The story moves forward and back in time to introduce audience members to Karen and Kash’s relationship, and contextualize the fantasy of submission and control Kash enacts with his new companion.
The show is at its strongest when it mines contemporary tech culture for laughs. The newly awakened robot begs for the WiFi password—“You’re too young,” the parental Kash responds—and slaps the playwright when he attempts to proceed without a password. “That was Trojan,” she states, “My new anti-virus.” Unfortunately, the moments of levity, and insightful commentary on the wired society are too few. On stage and screen, audiences have encountered many neurotic, self-absorbed, and impotent writers, and Kash, who resembles a social media-obsessed Woody Allen, is insufficiently interesting to hold attention. His character lacks a developmental arc, and his alternating descriptions of fantasy dates and romantic betrayal are repetitive. The whinging writer who patronizes the audience with soliloquies on the significance of his craft is unappealing; the character cannot afford to be also unengaging.
Furthermore, the piece is overly enthused about its own meta-theatricality. The lead character shares the name and profession of the work’s author and emerges from the crowd to open the show (a tired trick). The show never breaks the fourth wall; it doesn’t build one in the first place. The play-within-a-play-within-a-play is addressed directly to the audience, and too much of the script is given over to explanations of the writerly craft and staging a work.
Atkinson gives his all to a distasteful character (one wonders if the extremity of his disfunction is some sort of self-flagellation on playwright Raja’s part), but it is Pickup who brings some joy to the proceedings. She effectively inhabits three different characters—before the robot becomes Karen, she is a standard model imbued with the personality of the scientist who created her—and has a delightfully authentic delivery and mobile, expressive face. The scene in which human Karen attempts to evade sexual assault by a friend is painfully real, and aptly conveys the complexity of intimidation and consent which the #metoo movement has only begun to make visible.
Despite a few bright spots in Version 2.0, I would recommend that playwrights avoid looking in the mirror for their subjects; what gazes back is often a void.