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'The Good Girl' and the Dystopian Madam

59E59 imports a Melbourne Fringe play about sex robots to the NYC stage.

Photo by Lloyd Mulvey

In a nondescript kitchen in a nondescript apartment, a maintenance man for government-issued sex robots makes a shocking discovery: this one cries once it's all over. Anjali, the robot's madam, informs Ven that the men who visit her robot seem to like it, and soon a black market scheme is formed; in this futuristic world in which sex has become so divorced from relationships and even humanity, clients are willing to pay a great deal for genuine emotion. But as the pair coach their robot into more and more human behavior, just how far can they go with the act before it no longer feels like acting?

In a genre in which the norm is to suppress all romantic and sexual impulses entirely, it is fascinating to see Emilie Collyer's daring new play The Good Girl take events in the opposite direction. This 59E59 production directed by Adam Fitzgerald is imported straight from the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and maintains the nonstop, madcap energy you would expect from such an experimental venue. Jumping headfirst into a complex plot and unfamiliar dystopian setting, The Good Girl could use a bit more time to set everything up, but the constant surprises and engaging characters will have you forgetting about the lack of exposition before long.

The piece is a two-hander between actors Leah Gabriel and Giacomo Baessato; the robot herself never actually appears on the stage. And while this is likely for the best, keeping audiences from being distracted by either a human performer or the authenticity of a prop, it is disappointing that we never get to see the relationship between her and Anjali that transforms her into something almost human. Instead, Gabriel and Baessato give convincing, emotionally fraught performances as the entrepreneurial rebels in a totalitarian society they can only begin to understand.

One of the most exciting and effective elements of the play is that we never think about the world beyond Anjali's apartment and the hallway that leads to it until the characters themselves do, and then only in the most dire of circumstances. Our only other glimpse of the outside world comes from the TV shows Anjali watches, with such foreboding names as Sing for Your Supper, Prison Life and What I Did Wrong, giving our enslaved working class a window into the lives of the less fortunate to ensure their compliance with the law. This surreal backdrop provides a sharp contrast for the completely normal-looking apartment Anjali lives in and her and Ven's normal desires to earn a little more money and have children someday.

The Good Girl is a pastiche of different styles, from the direct address to the audience describing an elaborate sexual scenario that turns out to be a computer program to the flashes and eerie green light of a missing memory. Reality blurs as Anjali and Ven begin to explore and embrace the world beyond their rigidly programmed lives in a sequence of encounters that is as frightening as it is powerful. While occasionally needing a bit more explanation of what exactly is going on, these scenes impress upon the audience both the foreignness and the uneasy familiarity of the dystopian future.

A world in which a robot is always a "she" but never gets a name is a very particular place, and may ring true to audiences despite the science fiction trappings. Collyer's short play is jam packed full of intriguing thematic considerations and thrilling action, bringing to life a place in which fantasy becomes reality. The Good Girl will surprise you with a wide variety of emotional responses, and leave you desperate to know what happens to our beloved characters next.

The Good Girl plays at 59E59 through February 28.

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