Citizenship is a commodity in Helen Banner’s “Westphalia,” a play — currently being presented at Luna Stage in West Orange, in its world premiere, directed by Lila Rachel Becker — that offers a richly imaginative and thought-provoking vision of the not-so-distant future.
The setting is “a parallel United States in 2027” (in other words, right around the corner, pretty much). A stock market-like system allows you to buy and sell your right to live in a given country. If, for instance, you live in an undesirable country but want to move to a “better” one, and have a lot of money, no problem. And if you live in a desirable country and are willing to relocate to one more downmarket … you can make a lot of money in the process.
That’s exactly what the Robert family wants. They live in an expensive home in Westphalia, a Connecticut town full of affluent people. But they are in desperate need of cash, due to business problems and illness, and so they decide to explore their options. The play begins with them visiting the Jersey City offices of Cit-Ex, a company that specializes in such relocations. There they meet a hard-driving saleswoman, Leandra (Laura Jordan), and a humanoid robot, Kultur 1 (Phoebe Lloyd). The latter serves as the office’s receptionist and helps with the relocation-candidate screening process.
“You don’t have to play the lottery to win here,” Leandra tell family patriarch Edward Robert (Steven Hauck). “I can make you a millionaire by the end of the day.”
The going rate for U.S. citizenship, we learn, is more than $2.2 million, while Uruguay citizenship can be bought for a mere $28,000, and Uzbekistan is at about $42,500. Leandra adds some pressure by saying that if the family does this today, Cit-Ex will pay the transaction fees; there are bottles of champagne waiting to be opened, and gifts bags ready to be given to those who sign on the dotted line.
And so Edward and his adult children Sandy (Sydney Lo) and Kris (Neil Dawson), who are both schoolteachers, decide to take the plunge. They see it as an adventure that can all undertake together, Sandy explains to Kultur 1.
But there are complications, and things don’t work out the way they envisioned it. Most of the play deals with the repercussions of their decision, and with the changing relationship between Leandra and Kultur 1 (pronouns: they, them), who, due to their artificial-intelligence technology, is constantly absorbing new information and coming to new conclusions.
Lloyd, whose face is never seen behind Kultur 1’s mask (until the post-play bows), does a great job of appearing to attempt to mimic human behavior, but never getting the details exactly right. Kultur 1 generates laughs, for instance, just from their stiff attempts to cheerfully offer the Roberts a seat on the waiting-room sofa.
Jordan and Hauck also play snooty, horse-loving Westphalia residents who are taken aback by the Roberts’ decision to sell, and Hauck additionally plays a German robot engineer who, in a conversation with Leandra, provides some information about how Kultur 1 operates.
At times, we hear inter-robot chatter between Kultur 1 and others of their kind that they are in contact with. It’s pretty much indecipherable, and helps keep the audience off-balance. Also helping to create a sense of disorientation is the set design (by Patricia Marjorie), which features walls absurdly cluttered with paintings and photos and projections — more information overload.
But Banner’s vision of the future, which includes mentions of the escalating environmental problems the world faces, is not really dystopian. She’s not as cynical about Kultur 1’s AI capabilities, honestly, as I expected her to be. She seems to hold out hope that, while some rockiness is part of the process, perhaps AI can be used to figure out a better way for society to operate, and that ethics can be programmed into it. Let’s hope that’s true.
Luna Stage in West Orange presents “Westphalia” through Nov. 12. Visit lunastage.org.
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