A few hours before I was meant to see Andrew Stein’s Disruption, the New York Times posted an article about how the Biden administration is relying on AI companies to self-regulate themselves. Apart from the many examples of why this is a very bad idea, after watching this show, it’s hard not to feel a genuine fear at the implications of this, especially when taking into consideration what we know now about tech companies and how they use our data. Let’s just say that by the interval, I was debating at a minimum deleting my social media accounts.
An aptly named show that is a disruption in itself
This show demonstrates the threat that AI presents and the lack of control and freedom that comes with its monetisation. The story starts with Nick (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) asking his group of friends to invest in his new algorithm, but then uses the difficulties each couple is having- Paul (Nick Read) and Jill’s (Mika Simmons) marriage, Barry (Kevin Shen) and Mia’s (Rosanna Hyland) wavering on whether to buy a brownstone and Suzie (Debbie Korley) and Ben’s (Nathaniel Curtis) differing stances on having children - to both teach and use the AI to sway their lives in a particular direction. Disruption showcases the debates and various arguments for and against the prevalence and increasing use of AI in our lives, using the thin veneer of utilitarianism to expose the murky depths of its ethical implications.
Part of the tension that Stein and Hersh Ellis’ direction creates comes from how we relate this play to our own context and consumption of media. Most of us will be aware of a fictional or non-fictional monetization of hubris, like Jurassic Park and the OceanGate Titan submersible among others. And what Stein has pinpointed is that AI is just another disruption that follows the same pattern as the previous examples; that is, individuals asking the question whether they could rather than should. It's an incredibly intense and atmospheric show. Stein has written a very thorough drama, always giving us enough information to instil doubt as events unfold, scattering throwaway bits of dialogue that circle back at a later moment. It’s a naturalistic piece, so once we buy into something as mundane as the relationships dynamics of the characters, we are ready to believe in the applications of reality in the dystopian sci-fi plot.
From the very beginning, Disruption has a quality that makes it appear more like a film than a play; there is just something very familiar and cinematographic about it. The entire creative team plays a role in maintaining this effect as a collective, with the separate entities blending into a technically intense moment. It is one of those shows where everything just fits incredibly well, both in bringing the characters to life and of furthering the believability of the show. Robbie Butler’s lighting design, Asaf Zohar’s composition and sound design and Leanne Pinder’s movement create these moments that appear to be a halfway point between naturalism and stylisation. Ellis uses the understated luxury and monochrome of Zoe Hurwitz’s set to create these distinct cutaway scenes, even though the actors themselves are in very close proximity, occasionally remaining on the stage.
The cast really peel back the layers contained in these characters and they do bring them to life. Their portrayals are incredibly natural, and each character becomes real to us. Never have I had such a visceral dislike of a character before Alvin-Wilson’s portrayal of Nick. He shows the complexities and competing motivations that Nick has, but there is just something incredibly slimy about Alvin-Wilson’s manipulation as the character. Many times, I found myself actively rooting against him whenever he came onstage. This role really showcases Alvin-Wilson’s talent, in that he is able to provoke such an extreme reaction.
Disruption is an aptly named show that is a disruption in itself, as it most definitely disrupts our sense of calm and peace. It’s just incredibly unsettling to the point where we can’t stop thinking about the level of detail in the plot that creates implications within the subtext of the play; we just don’t know enough to be completely certain of the reality that the characters exist in. It’s not all wrapped up in a bow, and Stein uses that feeling of discomfort to force us to seriously think about - not only Disruption itself - but of a future with artificial intelligence.