According to this decidedly off-beat romantic comedy’s publisher (Faber & Faber), Comic Potential by prolific and highly proficient British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is “a comedy set in the foreseeable future when everything has changed except human nature….” Actors Comedy Lab’s summer show, running Aug. 6-21 in N.C. State University’s Thompson Studio Theatre, is the 53rd full-length play by the intelligent and witty author of Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, and Communicating Doors.

Like most (if not all) of Ayckbourn’s comic masterpieces, Comic Potential debuted at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in May 1998. The show made its West End premiere at the Lyric Theatre in London in October 1999, and had its New York premiere Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in November 2000.

“Is comedy humanity’s divine gift?” asks the brochure copy for the Stephen Joseph Theatre world-premiere production, “Or its own invention, designed to make the rest of life bearable? Either way, could it conceivably be appreciated by a mere machine? And could such laughter ever lead to love? Adam and JCF 31333, star-crossed, mis-matched lovers of the next millennium, face an uncertain future…”

According to ACL, Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynn Meadow said, “Alan [Ayckbourn] once described himself as a clown dancing in a minefield. There is always something underneath the humor and the good fun of the evening that is very provocative.” Janie Dee, who played JCF 31333 in both the London and New York productions, claimed, “Comic Potential is a play about human nature everywhere and the future everywhere. The flavour is British and American, hence it being particularly transferable in this case.”

ACL co-founder Rod Rich will direct the Triangle production of this critically acclaimed comedy, which stars the wife-and-husband team of Morrisa and Scott Nagel as malfunctioning “actoid” (i.e., robotic actor) JCF 31333 and aspiring television comedy writer Adam Trainsmith, who falls head over heels for “Jacie Triplethree.”

“Imagine,” invites ACL’s preshow publicity, “a time in the not too distant future when entertainment has been dumbed down to a new level of cookie-cutter mediocrity. It’s a world in which shows such as television soaps are cast with conveniently docile robots or ‘actoids’ programmed to remember the dialogue and movements from all their roles. Finally, imagine an actoid named Jacie Triplethree[, whose] programming mechanism has a glitch that sparks distinctly non-programmed responses, which in turn capture the heart and imagination of a young would-be comedy writer. Does this futuristic boy-meets-girl show biz romance have comic potential?”

The rest of ACL’s all-star cast includes: Rebecca Blum and Dena Byers as a lesbian couple: TV programmer Prim Spring and technician Trudi Floote; Amy Flynn as television regional director Carla Pepperbloom; Tony Hefner as TV mogul Lester Trainsmith and two actoids (the hotel desk clerk and a hotel waiter); Byron Jennings as Lester Trainsmith’s assistant Marmion and a television technician and an actoid hotel waiter; David Klionsky as two actoids (the doctor and the farmer) and two humans (the man in the dress shop and Turkey the pimp); Sheila Outhwaite as two actoids (the mother and the farmer’s wife) and two humans (the dress shop assistant and a unnamed prostitute); and Jerry Zieman as TV producer Chandler Tate.

In addition to director Rod Rich, the show’s production team includes set designer Thomas Mauney; lighting designer Andrew Korhonen; costume designers Sue Brace and Bunny Safron; fight choreographer David McClutchey; dialect coach Christine Morris; and sound designers Rowell Gormon, Rod Rich, and Tony Hefner.

In reviewing the original London production of Comic Potential, Ian Shuttleworth of The Financial Times noted, “The [show’s] themes and motifs the Pygmalion syndrome, the manner in which human personality is constructed, the competing desires for autonomy and certainty are expertly set up, then taken a step further.”

Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote, “With a mixture of progressive feminism and professional cynicism, Ayckbourn suggests both that women are the likely source of humorous rebellion in a mechanised future and that television will increasingly be run by humanised androids.”

And Patrick Carnegy of The Spectator Magazine added, “The idiocies of television may be a soft target for a playwright like Alan Ayckbourn, but the result is as crisp and invigorating as anything he’s done…. This is millennial comedy just as it ought to be, tackling serious issues with weirdly wonderful invention and with the kind of exquisitely tuned humour that may win a little more mileage for such humanoids as are still abroad.”

In praising the show’s New York premiere, even John Simon of New York Magazine, the bête noire of the New York theater scene, raved: “[Comic Potential is] a masterpiece…. [It is a] hilarious social satire, a disquisition on the nature of comedy, and a wistful commentary on the power and precariousness of love…. Comic Potential has both comic actuality and tragic potential.”

Simon added, “Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential [is] one of the finest plays of all my theatergoing decades. It is a riotous farce, a tremulously exquisite love story, a superb satire on television and other human follies, a wise and serious drama full of playfully tossed-off profundities about sundry aspects of life and art, and an irresistible evening in the theater. If you are going to see only one play in your life, make it this one.”

Actors Comedy Lab presents Comic Potential Friday-Saturday, Aug. 6-7, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 8, at 3 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 12-14, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 15, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 19-21 at 8 p.m. in N.C. State University’s Thompson Studio Theatre in Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Saturday and $12 Thursday/Sunday, with a $2 discount for University Theatre 2004-05 season members. 919/515-1100. Actors Comedy Lab: The Alan Ayckbourn Resource Guide (the official Alan Ayckbourn site):