Palo Alto is an anomaly. The city breeds and attracts mutations. We ARE different out here in ways that are really difficult to properly capture and even more difficult for outsiders to fully “get.” City Lights gets it (I’m happy to say) with their production of Build.
I was born and raised in Palo Alto, what I feel very strongly was (and still is) a tremendously special place, and during a particularly phenomenal time. I got older (because we never grow up in Palo Alto) alongside people and families who literally changed the world and are still greatly influencing it today. There’s a specific energy, language, approach to life and work/play ethic here. There’s an innate curiosity, a casual yet limitless drive and a specific sense of humor that permeates the landscape and its natives. When you’re born in Palo Alto you’re issued an invisible card to an elite, imaginary club. I really can’t go into the details, but suffice to say, something in the DNA of a native Palo Altan is literally, different. Being Palo Altan is glorious and weird and complex and messy and electric in just about every sense of the word.
”Dude!” I hear you say, “What’s your point?” Fair enough. I brag (and yes, there’s also a ridiculous pride amongst the rarity we call native Palo Alto Generation Xers) in order to fully disclose to you my obvious partiality. To communicate my bias which allows me to embrace on a cellular level, the content within the play Build; a play as you may have guessed by now, takes place in Palo Alto. But, my long and affectionate disclaimer should in no way draw you to the conclusion that my pixelated, pro-Palo Alto sensibilities in any way MAKE City Light’s production of Build. This play and this production stand tall and proud, totally separate from my geographic geek predisposition. Build, is a delight for geek and non-geek, for invisible card-carrying members and non-members, alike.
The basic description: A play about two video game developers (in Palo Alto) is certainly not a lie, but there is so much heart and metaphor cleverly wired into the play’s motherboard, that it seems a shame to just leave it at that for fear of it sounding too technical for widespread enjoyment. Yes, there are a lot of geeky things in this play, but you don’t have to understand all the tech to be in on the warm wit and humor of the play, or all the feels it has either. You don’t need to pick up the Atari 2600 game references or the War Games and Star Wars homages. You needn’t discover every Easter egg layered beneath tight, believable dialogue that effectively and intentionally moves the story forward, but if you do… you can’t help but chuckle, let out a little gasp of nostalgia or smirk knowingly. Beyond the nerdtacularness of this piece is a fantastically acted, technically intelligent, fascinating look at a very specific culture, and very developed, real people. It’s a relevant, fun, and surprisingly moving story, told really, really well.
There’s another key part (and character) of the story that’s been mentioned in the marketing material, but I feel it’s something that’s revealed slowly and intentionally in the play, so I’d rather treat it like a spoiler and not elaborate too much on it. I will say though that the art of technology, the birthing of personal projects, and the theme of letting go of something so personal and by doing so exposing a very vulnerable part of yourself, are all sweetly and intelligently covered in this show from page to stage. How code, numbers and mathematics can be as raw and real as flesh. How relationships are engineered. How we all seep through the ether of life either loosely or tightly as dictated by our own codes. How we choose and are beyond choice with regard to escape. How we cope mentally with feelings of detachment. How technology both connects and disconnects us. How much artificiality is really artificial? How to break free. All these ideas and more are explored via a very Meta vehicle, one that is incredibly meaningful and accurate in its confidence and style.
Special kudos to the individuals and teams involved with the set dressings/props and the video and lighting components. This play really couldn’t be done without a professional design and precise execution and the visuals accompanied by the top-notch (as always) sound design are superbly done. A polished, bug-free result is absolutely crucial to the integrity of the entire production and the City Lights team has set a VERY high bar here with the added perk of it being especially enjoyable in an intimate space. I enjoyed how the tangible and non-tangible components integrated in a balanced (not overpowering), creative and technically advanced end design.
While I loved the dialogue and I thought the casting, performances, and direction were near perfection, there were definitely some plot points and turns toward the end that I thought were a bit unfortunate. I found myself thinking “Did we HAVE to go THERE? Really?” A few of the written choices at the end felt clichéd, a bit rushed and veered from the authenticity that was established early and felt solid up until that point. The unnecessary creation of extra drama cheapened it a bit, and had the show not been so good otherwise, it was the kind of stuff that could have stuck out for sure. As it was, I think City Lights dealt with it well, neither overplaying it nor phoning in those moments either. An unfortunate and difficult thing to navigate, but done so skillfully.
At the end of the day, I’m clearly a fan of this fresh yet familiar (to me) story, which brims with beautiful insights and humor, pulling richly on my geek strings. I love the risk taken by producing this script and the outcome I feel is very representative of what City Lights excels at. 4 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for 90 minutes of user-friendly, beta tested, ready for release theatre. Build runs through February 22nd at the City Lights Theater Company in Downtown San Jose.