Avenue Theatre

Computers have tremendously augmented the memory and mathematical ability of the human mind. With more powerful chips, a bigger data base, and the ability to alter its own program through experience, the computer might someday develop the capacity to “learn” through experience, perhaps even acquire a sort of “wisdom.”

That’s the premise behind The Modern Socrates by D.H. Robinson. Unfortunately, the play is so crudely constructed and so poorly acted that it never becomes much more than a premise.

Still, The Modern Socrates, like its ancient namesake, tosses out some provocative ideas. The historical Socrates, as presented by Plato in the Dialogues, was a paradox: he claimed to know nothing, yet through his incessant questioning he led his fellow Athenians to the logical inconsistencies in their own thinking. The computer Socrates performs a similar function. Its creator, Brandon Turner, a genius in the field of artificial intelligence, has programmed it to absorb vast quantities of knowledge into its data base, from the most arcane physics to Plato’s Dialogues. He has also programmed Socrates to operate robot arms that can rearrange its own hardware in response to all this accumulated knowledge, creating a unique program that mimics the development of the human mind.

The personality that emerges from the computer begins pointing out logical inconsistencies in the thinking of Brandon and Delilah, the child psychologist Brandon hired to help him communicate with his “child.” When Brandon asks Socrates to examine a newspaper article about drug abuse, the computer points out that drugs, according to the definition in his data base, are helpful to human beings. If they were harmful, as the government claims, people would not take them. “Does anyone knowingly wish to do harm to himself?” Socrates asks, borrowing a line from its namesake. Besides, it points out, the government is a democracy, ruled by the will of the majority; if the drug abusers were in the majority, then drug use would stop being wrong and would become right.

In another provocative dialogue Socrates stumbles on one of the most troubling inconsistencies in the theory of evolution–not enough time has passed since the creation of earth for life to develop through random mutation alone. “The evidence is suggestive of something guiding evolution by adjusting the probabilities now and again at certain specific times, something gentle but untiring in its slow but progressive influence,” Socrates concludes. Something that resembles “some philosophers’ definitions in my English data base of the word ‘God.'”

As its data base becomes more complex, Socrates becomes concerned about the moral dimension of events, which gets it into trouble with the government. A computer can’t be forced to drink hemlock, but it can be silenced in other ways.

The Modern Socrates contains some enticing moments, but they’re diluted by pointless digressions and poorly developed plot complications that turn the play into a plodding, pedantic, and confusing mess. For example, the playwright has included a prolonged discussion about “superstring theory” and other ideas physicists are trying to weave into a grand unified theory that will explain how all the forces in the universe are related. This is not entirely irrelevant–Brandon is supposedly obsessed with finding a grand unified theory–but the material is presented like a lecture, with no apparent connection to the narrative flow.

In addition, the main character, Socrates, is not convincing. Even a computer powerful enough to decipher and generate human speech would have a quirky way of “thinking,” but the playwright has this machine talk like just another ordinary human.

The program lists The Modern Socrates as a “showcase production,” and such modesty is certainly justified. The script cries out for some heavy rewriting, the set is slapdash, and the acting is rudimentary. The actors–Arch Harmon as Brandon, Jeff Niles as his uncle Frank, and Sandee Greene as Delilah–barely interact with each other. Their performances seem self-enclosed–they recite their lines and go through their choreographed movements with no apparent awareness of the other actors. They look like infants engaged in parallel play–they’re together, but incapable of sharing their experiences with their “playmates.”

Still, director Doug Binkley helps the play’s few engaging moments to emerge. And people must be interested in the questions it poses; the play has gone into an open run at the Avenue Theatre, apparently on the strength of word-of-mouth advertising by people willing to endure its shortcomings for the sake of its provocations.