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BWW Review: DATA at Alliance Theatre

Alliance Theatre Brings the High-Tech World of Silicon Valley to the Screen

BWW Review: DATA at Alliance Theatre
Clare Latham and Jake Berne
Photo Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

DATA, the winner of this year's Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, by Matthew Libby and directed by Susan V. Booth, is available to stream on demand or to experience as a live virtual event through the Alliance Theatre Anywhere Series at Alliance Theatre this month. It's another production in a full year of hybrid productions, part film/part theatre, trying to meet the challenges of strict Covid safety protocols.

The productions, all laudable for their collective innovative spirit and for their conscious desire to support the forward momentum of the theatre world during this unprecedented time, mostly run the gamut from a little weird to really bizarre. DATA falls somewhere along the middle of the continuum. Its employment of CMII greenscreen studios, labs, and motion-capture software to allow the actors to remain 10-20 feet apart while filming scenes results in hefty challenges for the actors and, ultimately, wobbly production quality. In a year where we have often felt like we could be stoned for coughing in public, minor production problems aren't necessarily that important. The really pressing problem, here, is that the play is talky, niche-oriented, and, ultimately, untheatrical.

The play tells the story of Maneesh, a brilliant young computer programmer who has developed an award-winning algorithm that could catapult his company into major financial success and land him a cushy job in data analytics. But there's a problem. The issue that the algorithm could solve puts Maneesh in an ethical pressure cooker that asks him to choose between living up to his parents' daunting expectations for him and potentially ruining the lives of many innocent people.

BWW Review: DATA at Alliance Theatre
Cheech Manohar
Photo Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

The casting, here, is quite good. All of the actors make the most of their roles, despite the artificial playing conditions. Cheech Manohar, in the role of Maneesh, enjoys the most fully realized character in the script, and he convincingly leads us through Maneesh's internal struggle to figure out whether or not he can live with making the world a worse place. The other actors, all earnest in their attempts to provide bulk to characters who are pretty thinly drawn, also have nice outings. The most problematic thing for this cast comes in the inconsistent editing which sometimes presents film where the characters aren't quite looking at one another - or even in the right direction, sometimes.

The play, itself, is set in a high-tech Silicon Valley office building. That means that the people there talk about high-tech stuff all the time. All the time. And they use words like interface, server space, algorithms, and predictive analysis like it's their job - because it is. But the casual and constant use of high-tech jargon demands a lot from the audience. This challenge isn't insurmountable, but it's certainly made harder by the fact that the play's characters simply aren't that interesting. When they talk about their lives outside of the work space, which is rarely, they are unnecessarily vague about what their experiences have been, so it's hard to care about them. Especially since they don't really do anything. There are too few compelling present actions, leaving the play with a static quality that would never work on an actual stage.

Despite the minor production challenges and the fact that the script makes too many demands without enough payoff, the film is an enjoyable entry in this year's catalog of hybrid productions. When we finally brush off the Covid dust and find ourselves in actual seats in actual theaters, this will be a nice artifact of a time that most of us are pretty eager to leave in the history books.

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DATA plays on demand and in live virtual performances through May 23.

For tickets and information, click here.


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