Technology, ethics blur in Alliance’s digital ‘Data’

Cheech Manohar plays a Silicon Valley computer programmer who faces ethical conflicts in the Alliance's streaming "Data."
Courtesy of the Alliance Theatre
Cheech Manohar plays a Silicon Valley computer programmer who faces ethical conflicts in the Alliance's streaming "Data." Courtesy of the Alliance Theatre

The Alliance’s fast-paced drama “Data” hits the virtual stage.

For all of Susan Booth’s illustrious achievements during her tenure as artistic director of Atlanta’s Tony-winning Alliance Theatre — manifested on the stage, in a creative sense, as well as behind the scenes, in administrative terms — what’s the big deal, if a flair for filmmaking isn’t paramount among them? Under ordinary circumstances, why should it be?

Then again, under the extenuating COVID-related circumstances of the last year (and counting), artistic directors everywhere have been forced to think outside the proverbial box, by challenging themselves and their audiences with new ways of reimagining the communal experience of live theater in a socially distanced world.

What started some 14 months ago with a lot of rudimentary Zoom webinar-style script readings has gradually evolved into online streaming shows, featuring enhanced photographic and editing techniques to recreate several one-person stage performances: from Actor’s Express’ “Neat,” Synchronicity’s “rip” and Aurora’s “2 the Left,” to Theatrical Outfit’s “The Catastrophist” and Booth’s own “A Very Terry Christmas” for the Alliance.

“Data,” a high-tech ethical drama by Matthew Libby, is the 17th-annual winner of the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. Booth’s rendition, produced in conjunction with Georgia State University’s Creative Media Industries Institute, utilizes state-of-the-art greenscreen effects and motion-capture software to embellish the otherwise intimate story of a Silicon Valley computer programmer torn between his profoundly personal morality and certain highly topical business interests of his employer.

Too sluggish and low-key to justify being billed as a “fast-paced thriller,” the play is also too talky and aloof to be very emotionally involving, with too many “frustratingly vague” discussions about predictive algorithmic placing, computational pruning heuristics, and such. Even the development of the characters and the interaction between them turns out to feel a bit phony and forced.

One of the show’s “special effects” enabled the four cast members to stay 10 or 20 feet apart while shooting their scenes — in keeping with COVID guidelines — and then splicing them together in a way that the co-stars only appear to be on the same couch, or at the same desk, or across the same ping-pong table. The gimmick doesn’t always work well; when they supposedly peer into one another’s eyes, sometimes you can tell they’re out of alignment, looking slightly to the left or right of where the other person is positioned.

Consequently, if understandably, although the actors excel in individual moments, they rarely generate much chemistry or rapport together to fully function as a real ensemble: Cheech Manohar portrays the conflicted protagonist, opposite Clare Latham as his conscientious accomplice, Jake Berne as an opportunistic co-worker, and Stephen Hu as the unscrupulous boss who even raids all the Twinkies from the office vending machine.

While “Data” viewers can’t gather or connect “in person,” either, each screening begins with an “interactive lobby experience” designed by the Atlanta-based company Subsume, a tech platform for storytellers. Regular streaming is also available, but the interactive feature allows audience members to create their own avatar, mingle around the lobby and “chat” with others, before entering a virtual theater to watch the production from their computers.

We may never know how “Data” plays on an actual theater stage. As is, despite all its cutting-edge technology, the irony is that it’s finally too stagy to make a really good movie, anyway.

THEATER REVIEW

“Data”

Through May 23 via the Alliance Theatre Anywhere digital platform. Live virtual screenings are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Also available for basic “anytime” streaming. $5-$100. 404-733-4650. alliancetheatre.org.

Bottom line: At once a slightly static would-be thriller and a somewhat stilted morality play.

In Other News