What if our machines started talking back? In Eddie Antar’s new comedy, “The Navigator,” an omniscient GPS dispenses solutions to an unemployed man’s financial and marital woes. The play, which was nominated for eight Off-Off-Broadway theater awards last year (and won two) has been remounted at the WorkShop Theater Company near Penn Station. Jonathan Mandell of Back Stage called it a “clever, cautionary comedy about our tech-dependent era.”
Directed by Leslie Kinkaid Burby, “The Navigator” takes place almost entirely in a car belonging to Dave (Joseph Franchini), who has been out of work for six months. He has made a bad investment through his friend and broker, Al (Michael Gnat), and his marriage to Lilly (Nicole Taylor) is on the rocks. But just as Dave reaches the end of his rope, his GPS (Kelly Anne Burns) takes on a supernatural aura, bursting out with stock tips, relationship advice, and other helpful hints that he needs to put his life back together. Quentin Chiapetta designed the sound, which one critic lauded as a “fifth character” in the play.
Antar (no relation to that other Eddie Antar, the disgraced electronics company owner, “Crazy Eddie”) grew up in a Syrian Jewish family in Brooklyn. While working during the day as a freelance database programmer, he has penned a dozen full-length plays, including “Bashert,” about a young chasidic medical student who has an affair with a secular Jewish woman, and “Life on Hold,” about five middle-aged Jewish women who resume their weekly card game after 9/11.
In an interview, Antar told The Jewish Week that his aim was to “depict the relationship between man and machine.” He noted that some men have started naming their GPS devices, and that it is not unknown for men to be attracted to the digitized female voice that is giving them directions. Antar decided that one way to help concretize this relationship for the audience was to have the actress playing the GPS sit in the passenger seat next to Dave throughout the course of the play.
Being so dependent on machines, Antar said, may ultimately impede the exercise of free will. “What happens when we no longer have to add, or spell, or go to library for research, or keep our eyes on highway signs?” he asked. “What happens to our psyche when it’s being fed the answers all the time? It’s dehumanizing even when the answers are constantly pointing you in the right directions. The GPS in the play operates in time rather than space; it’s like living with a prophet who ultimately needs to be shut up — or turned off.”
The human cost of technological advancement is not a new theme, Antar pointed out, referring in particular to Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1955 play, “Inherit the Wind.” As the lawyer Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) argues in the climactic courtroom scene in that play, which deals with the battle between evolution and creationism, “Progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. … Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline!”
Antar is worried about that smell of gasoline, which he sees as a metaphor for the damage that technology can do, even as our devices seem to keep us from going off the road. His play, he said, “emphasizes the humanity in our autonomy — our being the one who makes the choice even if it goes wrong.”
“The Navigator” runs through March 3 at WorkShop Theater Company, 312 W. 36th St. (fourth floor). Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3p.m. For tickets, $18, call TheaterMania at (212) 252-3101 or visit www.theatermania.com.