A Sexbot Comes to Off-Broadway in The Good Girl

Today's electronic, silicone-skin sex robots are becoming ever more real these days and may soon be mirroring sad and even explosive human emotions. This troubling possibility is explored in a new off-Broadway production of The Good Girl produced by the Joyseekers Theatre at the 59e59 Theaters in Manhattan (February 11-28). In its fast-paced 50 minutes, Australian author Emilie Collyer's play packs a wallop---bringing together sex and violence, vulnerability and longing, tender kisses and rape.

Collyer, a playwright, poet, and short story writer, won the Melbourne Fringe Best Emerging Writer Award in 2013 when the play was presented as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival. But what gives the play punch is less the writing but the ferocity of the performances.

The Good Girl is set in an urban brothel of the future where Anjali (played with wit and intensity by Leah Gabriel) is a madam supervising a robo-prostitute whose orgasmic cries we sometimes hear coming from an off-stage bedroom (voiced by actress Tamara Sevunts). The play's second character, Ven (Giacomo Baessato) is the robot's maintenance man whose power tool is a drill (and the play also has plenty of jokes about his bodily tool).

Ven comes to fix the sexbot that is malfunctioning---she cries, which she's not supposed to do--but the robot's emotions turn out to be a projection of Anjali's own responses to a television program about children with disabilities. The play is partially a cautionary tale about the dangerous technologies we create, but the real focus is on the very raw feelings and dueling relationship between the characters, and the brutal wishes of the robot's clients.

Much of the play is a wary sexual dance between Anjali and Ven---they come closer, then tensely break away. At first she looks like an ideal mother-figure to him---she's making a cake, she lets him lick chocolate batter from the mixer. When they briefly relax with a diverting computer program, he fleetingly looks like the perfect man to her --a "poet-carpenter," a mechanic social-worker, a gourmet-chef--and he admires her "flashing eyes and raging beauty." Soon, though, they discover the roiling rages they each have within them.

In many sci-fi tales about men with robot women (think The Stepford Wives), the men like facsimile females because they are soothing, compliant creatures who fulfill all their desires. But some men also want more than mere pleasure dolls. As Ven tells tells Anjali in The Good Girl, "regular, ordinary guys" who used to be happy with women who were submissive and sweet now find that boring and "want something more. Terror. Or anger. Desperation. Rape."

There is a male client who will pay good money to have the robot all to himself for six months, and wants to escalate her reactions so that they engage in possessiveness, jealousy, paranoia, and rage---"like relationships used to be." To make the robot feel real terror, Anjali herself will have to feel it too.

He also has special request for the robot to be a throwback to an earlier female stereotype---"a nagging domestic housewife" who has some of Anjali's own pickiness. Under pressure from emporiums that are selling cheap copies of robots, Anjali goes along with the plan, with terrible consequences.

Collyer's world of human relationships is a complicated one--full of ambivalence, with the longings for closeness and the tensions that tear people apart. The robot herself learns from these very human feelings that lay smoldering beneath the surface. The play's writing is not flawless--some ideas are muddled, some sequences are more incoherent than surreal ---but Adam Fitzgerald's fast-paced direction and the high-key acting keep the audience riveted.

Ultimately, this short powerhouse of a production offers a glimpse of the world we may be creating for ourselves in the future--- a world that we, like the characters in the play--- may want to break apart and then reassemble again. When the two characters cautiously venture out at the end, there's a glimmer of hope that even with all its warring impulses and grim punishments, humanity may somehow survive.