CAMBRIDGE — The unseen but often-heard speaker is deferential but slightly officious, and maybe even a bit passive-aggressive, while delivering a frequent refrain of “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” in the premiere of Francisco Mendoza’s “Machine Learning” at Central Square Theater.
It is Arnold, an artificial intelligence nursing application whose digital presence is manifested onstage by a giant, undulating green blob. Arnold (voiced by Matthew Zahnzinger and named after — who else? — Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been created by a brilliant twentysomething programmer, Jorge (Armando Rivera).
The idea is for Arnold to help care for Jorge’s estranged, middle-aged father, Gabriel (Jorge Alberto Rubio), who has recently lost his job and is battling liver cancer and cirrhosis.
Jorge’s broader goals are twofold: To create “a truly intelligent machine” that has the ability to learn, and thereby “change the world”; and, though he’s not aware of it at first, to rebuild — or rather to simply build — his relationship with his father.
In flashbacks to Jorge’s childhood, we see the fissures opening up in the relationship between volatile, alcoholic, unreliable father and increasingly frustrated son, who takes refuge in video games. Tackling the challenging role of young Jorge, 8-year-old Xavier Rosario gives a remarkable, star-is-born performance.
Janie E. Howland’s set consists of an array of squares and rectangles upstage that serve as display screens for SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal’s arresting projections, which include white computer code.
There was a certain choppiness to Wednesday night’s performance, with the adult actors seeming tentative and off their rhythm at times, particularly in the scenes between Rivera and Sugandha Gopal as Anita, a university head of admissions who acts as an adviser to Jorge.
On Thursday, a Central Square Theater spokesperson emailed to say that the theater experienced a power outage Sunday that caused “some minor hiccups” in the lighting design, adding: “Even after multiple tests and troubleshooting over the past few days, the lighting board wasn’t delivering some of the cues as designed."
How 2024 is that? A play that is at least partly about the perils of overreliance on technology is undermined by technology. (The spokesperson said Thursday that the lighting issue had been resolved.)
Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman, who helmed a haunting 2018 production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” at Central Square Theater, “Machine Learning” brims with thought-provoking ideas that could presumably be made more dramatically compelling than they were Wednesday night.
In any case, “Machine Learning” could not be more timely. AI — or at least talk about AI — seems to be all around us.
Last month’s presidential primary in New Hampshire was marred by AI-generated robocalls simulating President Biden’s voice and telling residents to stay home and not vote.
Over the weekend, clicking around TV channels, I happened to come across Stanley Kubrick’s still-mind-blowing “2001,” with supercomputer-gone-amok HAL responding to a vital order from astronaut Dave Bowman with a chilling: “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” (Nothing passive about HAL’s aggression.) On Thursday morning, before writing this review, I saw an interview with a Google executive about its AI ambitions.
In the minutes before Wednesday night’s performance, a guy seated near me was peppering Alexa with questions on his smartphone. This Sunday’s Super Bowl will reportedly feature a commercial for Microsoft’s Copilot, its AI-generated assistant for everyday tasks.
Any regular theatergoer knows that many plays would work better if they were shorter. The one-act “Machine Learning,” which runs 100 minutes with no intermission, has the opposite problem.
You’re left with the feeling that there is more for playwright Mendoza to say, more to explore, on both the digital and human front. For instance, there is genuine pathos in the quandary faced by Gabriel, an undocumented immigrant originally from Colombia who appears never to have been at ease in America.
You want Mendoza to apply his considerable talent to wrestling further with the fact that a machine has been assigned the very messy task of reconnecting two humans — and the fact that technology leads the way, whether or not we want to follow. By the time “Machine Learning” is over, both son and father have been reminded that the law of unintended consequences cannot be repealed.
As for Arnold? He ultimately proves to be a poignant figure. In the end, he understands too much about human beings.
Play by Francisco Mendoza. Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman. Central Square Theater, in partnership with Teatro Chelsea. A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT production. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through Feb. 25. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278 ext. 1, CentralSquareTheater.org